Unity at the Expense of Women

by Beth Frank-Backman

More times than I can remember I have participated in cross-denominational groups that have held back on the public participation of women in the name of unity. Sometimes it shows up in who is chosen to lead kiddush in a communal Shabbat. Sometimes it shows up in hesitancy to hire women rabbis and cantors. Sometimes it shows up in the absence of female faces in ad campaigns. And sometimes it shows up in who is visible in a Chanukah celebration.

This past Chanukah, B’nei B’rith chose to hold a live global web-cast of a Chanukah candle lighting inside the Hurva synagogue. They knew women would not be able to visibly participate. They knew women couldn’t even be in the audience around the candles – for women are not allowed in the main sanctuary and the ezrat nashim is high up and far away. Still they proudly had the candle lighting in the Hurva sanctuary in the name of unity.

When confronted that their unity excluded half of the world’s Jews (the female half in case anyone is wondering), B’nai Brith makes no apology. In fact their executive director, Alan Schneider, posted not one, but two responses to an eJewish Philanthropy post, insisting that those complaining weren’t looking at the bigger picture. Jewish unity justifies all.

Nothing broke through B’nai B’rith’s complacency.

Not the observation that exclusion was completely unnecessary. One could have the Hurva synagogue as a symbol and include women by doing the candle lighting outside the Hurva sanctuary.

Not the observation that even Chabad, part of the ultra-orthodox world, finds a way to include women for their Chanukah candle lighting events.

Not the observation that Chanukah is signaled out as a holiday of special significance to women and that candle lighting is also their own obligation. The victory of the Maccabees ended the Greek ruler’s right to rape any women he wished before she married.

Not the observation that the unnecessary exclusion of women is against the values of a significant portion of B’nei B’rith’s religious and non-religious supporters.

Not the observation of a commentator who spoke out of personal pain.

Not the public protest of Jewish Women International.

Not the protest of Uri Regev, President and CEO of Hiddush, a Jewish communal world organization fighting for Jewish pluralism in Israel.

No none of this mattered. Unity justified all.

In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Hillel asks us “If I am only for myself, then who am I?” (Pirke Avot 1:14) If unity exists for its own sake, who are we as Jews? As a Jewish community? For Judaism to be meaningful we need a common set of values that define who we are. If we cannot see eye to eye about those common values, then we as a community need a serious conversation about what those values really are.

In response to all of the above Alan Schneider, Director of B’nai Brith World Center wrote “It’s not often such geographically distant and disparate Jewish communities can come together for an event and we are proud to have helped unite them.”

We need to ask what unity really means.

Does it mean everyone having their own way? Surely not. The way of inclusion is mutually exclusive of the way of exclusion.

Does it mean that we chose the smallest common denominator that every imaginable sect can agree with? If we do that, we may end up with almost no Jews at all. Israel’s rabbinut takes that approach with the “who is a Jew” question. As a result a good many of the world’s Jews, if not most of them, would have a very difficult time proving their right to either marry or be buried as a Jew in Israel.

Or does it mean that we think long and hard about our Jewish priorities? In the story of creation it says “And God created the human being in God’s own image. In the image of God, God create the human being, male and female God created them”. (Gen 1:27). The ancient rabbis understood that to mean that the first human being was hermaphrodite (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 7:1). One side was female. One side was male. The second creation story where Eve is created from Adam is then understood to be the separation of the hermaphrodite into two beings (“rib” also means “side” in Hebrew). But even then men still needed women, so Genesis tells us that for this reason, every man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife. (Gen. 2:24)

The wholeness of the Jewish community is impossible without both men and women. There can be no unity without both halves of Adam. Whatever are our goals for unity, they cannot be at the expense of women. Jewish unity is not Jewish unity if it only includes a union of Jewish males.

Beth Frank-Backman is a resident of Jerusalem.