Judaism – The Problem or Solution for Women’s Equality?

by Frayda Leibtag

The session on “Judaism and Women’s Equality” at the 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference was certainly one of the spicier events at the conference. The panel included individuals from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements whose statements highlighted the disparity between their views. Although, as panel participant Professor Ruth Gavison noted, the arguments are certainly “for the sake of Heaven.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, pithily summed up the topic in one question: “Is Judaism the problem or the solution to women’s equality?” Adina Bar Shalom, the Founder, CEO and Chair of the Board of the Directors of the Haredi College of Jerusalem, explained how in the Hareidi sector, women and men simply have different, complementary roles. Bar Shalom, who is also the daughter of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spoke of the privilege of working to financially support her family while taking full responsibility for her home and children during the first eight years of her marriage so that her husband could learn full-time. “Haredim have every right to live a gender-segregated existence,” agreed Rabbi Jacobs. “The problem is that it has taken over Israeli society and extends to segregated buses, the bridal canopy, cemeteries and the Kotel. Ultra-Orthodoxy must no longer be the default position of the Jewish state,” he remarked. Panel participant Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, said, “Israel is family for us and in the modern family, everyone must have a say at the table.”

According to Gavison, Professor emerita at Hebrew University and founder of both the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Metzilah – a Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought, the goal is to figure out how we can work together so that Judaism is a relevant force in everyone’s life, as well as in the civilizations of the modern world. She broke the issue of equality down to three arenas: religious, social and legal. For Gavison, there is no doubt that the “religious debate will continue.” Her declaration that “there is no legal system that cannot change, even a divine one,” elicited a strong facial reaction from Orthodox panel member Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel who had stated several minutes earlier that while Jewish customs change from generation to generation, “Torah and Halakha are unchangeable by definition.”

“We must figure out how to change the law without offending the sense of tradition. Social change is the key, and the law can help foster this social change,” Gavison said. She stressed the role that the public must play in helping to create a more equitable Jewish society by showing the rabbis that they have created something that “the public cannot abide by.” According to the Talmud, “We do not impose a decree upon the community unless a majority of the community is able to abide by it” (Bava Kamma, 79b). “This change must be facilitated, not coerced,” emphasized Gavison.

The takeaway from the session? Is Judaism the problem or the solution to women’s equality? It depends who you ask. For the three Orthodox women who were ordained this month by Yeshivat Maharat and will be taking on spiritual leadership roles in the modern Orthodox community, the landscape of Judaism is capable of adapting to changing times and needs. Sally Priesand, America’s first female Reform rabbi, was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1972. These women may tell you that it is within Judaism to give us equality for women, and change can and will take place, albeit slowly. Ask an agunah, a woman “chained” to her marriage, the same question and she might tell you that Judaism is inherently supportive of inequality.

All the panel participants seemed to agree on at least two things: the universality of the struggle for women’s equality and the role that individuals must play in changing our future. “God didn’t decree the current inequality. Men did,” said Rabbi Jacobs. Echoing Gavison’s remarks, panel chair Professor Menahem Ben Sasson, President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concluded by reminding the audience of the responsibility of individuals, both men and women, to shape a more equal future for all of us.