Orthodoxy's Troubling Double Standards for Women

I had a jarring conversation with a young woman last week. In a discussion about the challenges women face in Orthodoxy, she turned to me with a cheeky smile and declared, “I am not a feminist.”

She described her perceptions of Shira Hadasha , the pioneering partnership synagogue in Jerusalem where men and women share certain roles in leading services and reading from Torah, mechitzah [partition] and all.

“I went there once and I was not impressed with the women,” she said, by way of explaining her aversion to feminism. “I came on time, but the other women came whenever they felt like it. They just weren’t committed. That’s why I’m not a feminist – because the women are not serious.”

“Serious” and “committed” are of course euphemisms for “Orthodox.” The ones who may come late to shul are “the feminists,” and obviously not Orthodox.

I’ve heard this argument before. The idea that women must be more ritually punctilious than the Chief Rabbi in order to “deserve” equal rights has been echoed in many corners of Orthodoxy – even in some feminist circles.

At Darchei Noam , for example, the partnership synagogue in Modi’in, the women were asked several years to give up all their roles one Shabbat to accommodate a man – the uncle of a family making a bar mitzvah – who refused to hear a woman’s voice.

“Women don’t come on time anyway,” went one of the arguments, “so why should we be so insistent on maintaining women’s right to lead services in the morning?” As if to say that tardiness disqualifies women from equal rights. The misogynist uncle, on the other hand, is more serious in his religious commitment and thus his rights are firmly in place. (In the end, the request was cancelled, but left enormous communal tension in its wake.)

In another conversation, a man who sat on the halakha [Jewish law] committee of Shira Hadasha told me that while he believes it is technically permissible for women to count in a minyan , he wouldn’t support it because in his view women are not committed enough. “Women come when they feel like it, and walk in and out during services,” he complained. “Women must internalize commitment before we can give them equal rights.”

Nobody demands that men demonstrate commitment before counting in a minyan . On the contrary, a group of nine men waiting to pray will grab any Jewish man off the street – whether a murderer, a rapist or Bernie Madoff – as long as he is circumcised and capable of saying amen.

How hurtful this practice is to a woman, standing in the presence of those nine men. She is completely invisible as men look right past her to seek out The Male.

The idea that basic human dignity is automatically granted to some people but must be earned by others runs against the Torah’s foundations. We are all created in God’s image, and all of us deserve to be seen, heard and counted. Yet, this idea that women are undeserving continues to be invoked as rationale against change. The rationale is in fact more powerful than halakha .

Rabbi Harry Maryles , for example, an Orthodox blogger who also happens to be my cousin, argues against women’s ordination despite the fact that it is halakhically permissible, because of what he perceives as the women’s lack of religious sincerity. Responding to the opening of the Maharat Yeshiva for women , he wrote:

I do not believe any halacha was violated here. …But I still object to the idea of conferring semicha [ordination] upon a woman…I believe that much of the source motivation is based in social feminism…. In my mind that is an illegitimate reason to pursue the role of rabbi…. [A] female rabbi (or Maharat) smacks too much of the feminist equality motive rather than a sincere desire to serve… If she starts studying for semicha one must ask why she is doing that?…Behavior that is sourced in an ideology that is anathema to Judaism is suspect and should be avoided – even if it is technically permitted…especially when the primary motivation is feminist….

Rabbi Maryles presents women with a Catch-22: a woman who wants a greater role is by definition outside of Orthodoxy and therefore undeserving. The pseudo-logic according to which women must somehow demonstrate some kind of obscure purity of thought and motivation (i.e., lacking a desire to count and serve equally) is unfair and disingenuous. It dismisses women’s spiritual quests, ignores Torah values of social justice and compassion, and expresses a horrifying distrust of women.

Moreover, this presumption of being able to be sure of a woman’s motivation reflects an infuriating double standard. Do we ever do that to men? Do we poke and judge every thought they may have and then decide whether they should count for a minyan?

Women’s painful struggle within Orthodoxy is not just about “rights” but about changing the way society judges, admonishes, and punishes women. It’s about building a religious society based instead on kindness and compassion.

On Yom Kippur, as we stand before the Holy One, Blessed Be He, pleading for compassion, I pray that mortals find a way to express that very same compassion towards one another as well.

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