Leah Bieler

Thank you, Mr. President

I’m super excited about the decision of Israeli president Rivlin to reneg on his promise and barr Masorti/Conservative rabbis from participating in a bar mitzvah program conceived and executed by the Masorti movement. It means that full women’s religious equality is just around the corner.

Before you pull something rolling your eyes, hear me out. Why would this program, which the Masorti movement runs all over Israel, be a “Conservative” undertaking? The Masorti movement was addressing a particular need in Israeli religious life. Mainstream Orthodox rabbis refused to officiate at actual bar (and certainly BAT) mitzvah ceremonies for children with a host of disabilities, claiming that halakhically, these children would never be obligated for prayer, and therefore could not have an aliyah, the centerpiece of most every bar mitzvah celebration. So families were drawn to programs run by the Masorti movement, where their children would be permitted to have a complete service, and be recognized as full-fledged members of the adult religious community.

None of these children would have been permitted to celebrate what we commonly call a bar mitzvah in an Orthodox setting, with an Orthodox rabbi.

Over the last few years, there have been attempts by some liberal Orthodox communities to change this paradigm. It is wrong, they assert, to watch children and families suffer. To send them a message that their children are ‘less than’ simply because of their challenges. In our modern world, they say, we have a better understanding than the rabbis long ago, and we realize that even children with limited capacity can bring tremendous joy to our communities.

These are beautiful sentiments. I agree with them whole-heartedly. Not so long ago, we treated such children as if they were sub-human. Because they couldn’t hear us, we assumed they had no capacity for higher reasoning. Because they couldn’t walk, we assumed that they would be ashamed to need help getting to the bimah. Because they didn’t understand everything about becoming bar mitzvah, we assumed they had nothing to teach the rest of us. How wrong we were. How much richer we are now that we see things differently.

But here’s the rub. Not so long ago, women were considered to be a simpler form of human. So much so that in the traditional service, men still recited the blessing every morning, thanking their creator for not having made them a woman. Women were not allowed to serve on synagogue boards, or be voting members, or approach the bimah, or touch the torah. Women’s voices were expected to be silent in the service, not to be heard above a whisper. They were required to sit in the back, behind a curtain, or a wall, or better yet, to say home with their children while the man of the house ‘represented’ the family in public. Sometimes their faces were erased from pictures. They were not counted as Jews when a quorum was required. If they stood up to praise God in memory of a departed loved one, they were shushed. They were not permitted to study the Talmud.

Wait. Right. That’s all still going on today. And while there are some places, some Orthodox communities, where this is changing, in many, especially in the Ultra-Orthodox world, the contrasts are becoming even more stark.

What if those very rabbis who are demanding compassion for children who were long overlooked, saw the humanity, and the suffering, in girls and women?

What if they acknowledged that in our society, we understand that women have the same capacity for reason and logic, the same ability to stand before the ark with humility, without focus on their sexuality? What if communities came together and asserted that their dignity was in no way diminished by the fact that women read from the Torah? Why is the suffering of girls, and women, not worth a second look at the sources?

There is no logical answer to these questions except to say this: We see the suffering of women. It is our duty to reexamine the sources, to turn them over and over until we find a way to alleviate that suffering, because otherwise, how to understand a creator who would not be with us on that journey?

Rabbis who have looked a 12 year old boy with Down’s Syndrome in the eye, and thought, we can do better by this child, we can include him more fully in our community – there are millions of women and girls standing right behind him. It is the logical conclusion of your choices. Acknowledge the fullness of our humanity. Then sit back and see what tomorrow brings.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.
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