Friday, March 28, 2014

The Ten Rights? Or the Ten Commandments?

 R' Hershel Shachter: Partnership Minyanim violate Halacha - Photo Credit: Forward
"The motivation behind partnership minyanim is to narrow the wide gap between the relative gender equality that Orthodox women experience in their professional and civic lives and the gender stratification they experience in their religious lives." 
This excerpt from a Forward article by Aurora Mendelsohn says all that one needs to know about Orthodox Feminism.  The emphasis is on gender differences in the lives of Orthodox women. Not on gender obligations. This dominates the Orthodox feminist cause - the worship in feminism of the false god of full gender equality in all areas of life.

I don’t know how many times in the past I’ve said that I consider myself a feminist. But I have been challenged on the basis that a true feminist takes no prisoners. That means that if there is ever a conflict between gender equality and any other consideration, gender equality wins.

That is a false god on the face of it. Women and men are not equal. Primarily, they are biologically different - having different reproductive systems.  Feminists will of course concede the obvious.  But that is where they say differences should end. It is an article of faith for them no less than the tenets of Judaism are articles of faith for Orthodox Jews. And that is where the conflict lies. To a true feminist, there is nothing that trumps the feminist article of faith about gender equality. Not even the word of God.

There can therefore be no such thing as a true feminist and a fully Orthodox Jew. For Orthodox Jews, Halacha trumps feminism when the two are in conflict. Orthodox feminists like those belonging to JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) concede the point. Hence they can only be called feminists with an asterisk. But they still call themselves feminists claiming that in every other sense - they are.

Well then I too am a feminist (with an asterisk). Except that my cutoff point is different than theirs. I am a believer in full equality for women in all areas outside of Judaism. That includes equal pay for equal work, and treating each other with equal dignity and respect. But where it conflicts with their roles as Jewish women, I part company with them. God for His own reasons gave men and women different roles. And the spirit of that has been guided throughout history by our traditions (Mesorah).

Which brings me to Partnership Minyanim. It does not make one a better Jew when the classic notion of the separation of sexes in public prayer is bastardized by finding loopholes in Halacha (assuming they really are legitimate loopholes). Loopholes that allows them to participate together. Partnership Minyanim allow women to serve as cantors in certain portions of a public prayer services. Like Kabolas Shabbos.  

But are the women who do this really doing it because it gives them a spiritual lift? Or are they doing it because of a goal of breaking the glass ceiling in Orthodox Judaism? I think the opening quote above answers that question.

Feminists see this as a right. But as I have said many times Judaism is not primarily about rights. It is primarily about obligations. Moshe Rabbenu did not bring down the ‘ten rights’ from Mount Sinai. He brought down the ten commandments engraved in stone. Commandments (or Mitzvos) are obligations. All 613 of them. They are the dos and don’ts of Judaism.

But for Orthodox feminists it is all about rights. So they focus very little on their religious obligations as women and instead focus almost exclusively on areas of gender equality by trying to force it into as many facets of Judaism as they can. I don’t think that is arguable. No matter how spiritual individual intent is - and I’m sure that is in many cases - it is impossible to separate the goal of breaking the glass ceiling they perceive Orthodox Judaism to have.

Ms. Mendelsohn uses the general societal measure of female participation to make her case. She says that since women are successfully integrated into all facets of life and capable of achieving the greatest heights of success in any field they choose - that ought to set the standard for Judaism. Judaism she says should grant no less opportunity to its women. She calls it fixing the gender thing. Why do Orthodox feminists feel so strongly about this? Perhaps the following excerpt will explain:

(O)nce one admits that a secular value, or an idea from outside the halachic framework, is what drives the pressure for halachic and ritual change, the door is opened for other changes based on other secularly sourced ideas, like gay and lesbian rights, intellectual skepticism or the value of breaking bread with your neighbors.
Once the traditional way can be wrong about something, then one is admitting it can be wrong and insufficient, which is a frightening concept for an institution that is supposed to guide one’s daily life with authority. This challenges the very nature of religious authority and the religious decision-making process, both fundamental concepts in Orthodoxy. The very fact that the innovation comes from the laity and not from well-respected, established, traditional rabbinic authorities makes it so unacceptable. This threat of influence from secular ideas and the challenging of authority and not only a desire for retention of power and internalized misogyny (though, of course, those as well) are the reasons that mainstream Orthodoxy is so resistant to partnership minyanim.
This typically feminist view about resistance to the challenge of male authority applied to Orthodoxy is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of Orthodoxy’s approach to male and female roles.

‘Fixing the gender thing’ is incompatible with the Orthodoxy. You can’t fix God’s commandments to make all areas of life the same for both men and women. Their desire to remain within the framework of Orthodoxy ought to tell them that. At best you can fudge it with oddities like Partnership Minyanim. But even if they were to find a lot of loopholes wherein women can participate in the domain that is traditionally reserved for men, they cannot go all the way. And they know it.

They will never for example be able to be counted towards the minimum number of people required for the religious quorum known as a Minyan. It has to be ten men. Nine men and one woman… or even a hundred women does not constitute a Minyan.  So their goals of gender equality can never be met in full. They realize that there has to be a stopping point. And yet they are willing to go far afield from traditional observance trying to reach an unreachable goal. What in the end will be gained? Certainly not full gender equality in the religious sphere.

I do not understand why Orthodox feminists can’t separate their religious identities and goals from their societal identities and goals. These are two different worlds with two different foci.  

Just to be clear I completely support the principle that women be given full rights and dignity in all areas that do not impact religion. I have no issue for example with female PhDs  or female university presidents.  I have no issue with female Supreme Court justices or with female surgeons. Or any other major accomplishment. Nor do I have any issue with great achievements in Torah study for women if they choose to do so.  The opposite is true.

I fully support the right of any women to pursue any goal they choose. But I don’t understand why the freedom to achieve success in all other areas must be transferred to the religious arena. Does it really make a woman with a PhD in physics feel inferior if she cannot be a Chazan in a Shul? Will the ‘transformation of Orthodoxy through Partnership Minyanim’ objectively help women gain greater spiritual heights? How many women can honestly make that claim? Or is this all about breaking the glass ceiling?

I am not here to question anyone’s personal motives. I can’t know what is in the heart of any human being. Nonetheless it’s really hard to see the focus on feminine equality in Orthodoxy as anything else but that.