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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Women and an Ethos of Diversity

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on May 10, 2013)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Personal Status & Identity

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Good Hodesh!  I hope you are all well and are getting ready for the upcoming Chag.  As we know, Shavuot, from the Rabbinic perspective, celebrates the day of the Giving of the Torah.  Interestingly, while the simple sense of the verses indicate that it was the men, and not the women, who were being addressed in the lead up to Matan Torah (“Prepare yourselves for the third day – do not draw close to a woman”), Hazal underscore that women were equal participants in standing at Har Sinai and receiving the Torah (“‘So you shall say to the house of Jacob, beit Yaakov‘ – these are the women.” – Mechilta of R. Yishmael).  They even understood that the purpose of the three-day wait was to ensure that the women would be ritually pure and able to participate.

I was thinking about this ethos, and how it contrasts with what has been happening to the Women of the Wall when they come to pray at the Kotel.  Today, on Rosh Hodesh, thousands of Haredim came to protest letting these women have access to the Kotel to hold their prayers.  Luckily, no one was hurt.  But this ongoing opposition is fueled by a belief that only certain people, acting in only very narrowly defined ways, can be part of this contact with the Holy, with the Divine.
This week’s parasha gives a very different model than this exclusivist approach.  The camp is arranged around the Mishkan, separated by each tribe.  It is an arrangement of unity, not uniformity. True unity, creating a bonded, cohesive community, comes from respecting differences – ish al diglo – each tribe with its own uniqueness, its own distinctiveness preserved. Some are on the left, some on the right, some North, some South. What held them together was a shared commitment to respect each other’s boundaries, to value their degalim, their distinct flags, their diversity, and to exist together as one people with a shared orientation towards God’s presence in their midst.

A few years ago, I was in Israel at a conference of rabbis, and the topic for that afternoon was women’s participation in the community and the shul. A rabbi spoke on the topic of women saying kaddish. He shared that he wanted to do what was best for the community, and he was prepared to allow a woman to say kaddish in his shul, but this created an enormous amount of conflict. So, for the sake of peace, he reversed his position and asked that women not say kaddish in his shul. While this is an occurrence that happens regularly – in one manifestation or another – in shuls everywhere, I was particularly disturbed by this story. Here was a rabbi who was not motivated ideologically, and who in principle was prepared to allow this practice, but who backed off to preserve the peace in his community. Even setting aside the ethical issue of preserving the peace of the majority at the expense of the rights of the individual, what is deeply disturbing is that there was another way to address the communal issue.

The rabbi need not have bought into the cause of the conflict – the belief that many of his community had, that one person’s actions defined their identity – that this woman’s saying kaddish, this “feminist” act, as it were (here is not the time to detail how this was a widely accepted practice in Lithuania and elsewhere), defined them as “feminist” or “radical” as well. Here was an opportunity to educate the community on the lesson of diversity. That to allow such behavior is not to say that I identify with the position, it is to say that I respect the principle of elu vi’elu, that I want a community that welcomes a wide diversity of people, a halakhic community that respects the range of halakhic practices. Why not do the hard work to create shalom by working to create a community that is a truemachaneh Yisrael. Let each person have his or her degel. It need not be your degel, but make sure that they are part of the camp, that they, like you, can access the Mikdash, and can stand at the foot of Har Sinai.