One of the signature features of Orthodoxy is the assignment of different public roles to men and women, and the reservation of specific ritual duties to males and females, respectively. In the past, I have been invited to a number of discussion forums that dealt with the idea of empowering Jewish women by expanding the scope of their ritual participation in the home and the synagogue. Apparently, those familiar with my stance as an outspoken advocate for women's Torah Study expected me to support this initiative as well.
However, much to their chagrin, I was and I am strongly opposed to this approach. I do not believe it offers an authentic and satisfactory response to the concerns raised by Modern Orthodox women. In fact, I believe that this tactic is poorly conceived and fundamentally misguided.
This is why I was interested to see the arguments put forth in this article from Open Orthodox Rabbi Zev Farber in which he vigorously promotes expanding the range of ritual participation available to Modern Orthodox women. His suggestion is that we go back to basics, reexamining each and every area in which distinctions have been made between men and women and questioning whether these distinctions have a legitimate halakhic basis or are simply customs by default, "the way it's always been done". On the surface, such a reconsideration of common practice in the light of traditional sources sounds reasonable and healthy. Certainly no harm can come from the advancement of knowledge and understanding.
Rabbi Farber's article also makes some outstanding points about the double-standard that is applied to the motives of men and of women vis a vis ritual participation. There is a tendency in the Orthodox world to criticize women who express interest in ritual activity. The movement to establish women's prayer groups, Torah readings, etc., is attributed to their ignoble desire for fame, honor, or power. Yet the men, who are subject to these same petty desires and impulses, who enjoy receiving honors and basking in the limelight just as much, are granted the opportunity to participate in these rituals as a matter of course, without having their agendas scrutinized or their motives questioned. These are very fair and accurate observations.
However, while I sympathize with his sentiments and accept the cogency of much of his reasoning, I strongly disagree with Rabbi Farber's conclusions. In my opinion, the solution is not to encourage MORE ritual participation among women. On the contrary, the objective should be to educate our communities to an understanding that ritual participation is not the sin qua none of Divine Service.
Participation brings with it the thrill of performance in front of a group, the widely coveted opportunity to shine. However, in essence, it is not outward ritual that perfects us. It is not reading the Torah publicly, nor leading the prayers before the congregation, nor reciting Qaddish that draws us nearer to Hashem and actualizes our spiritual, intellectual or moral potential.
This objective, the ultimate objective of all of Torah and mitzvot, is realized only through authentic study of Torah and pure and sincere observance of mitzvot, particularly the mitzvot of Tefillah (genuine prayer) and the pursuit of justice, charity and kindness. The greatest Sages and Prophets of our history did not scale the heights of Divine Knowledge by virtue of serving as the cantors, rabbis or Torah readers in their synagogues; they were, by and large, loners and mavericks who pursued the truth relentlessly and independently, neither seeking public recognition nor caving to public pressure. This message is a message that both men and women need to hear. It is a principle that must regain its central footing in our religious consciousness and experience.
Were an archaic version of Rabbi Farber to have lived in the days of the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, we can envision the scene: He would have climbed the rooftops or the hilltops (there were no blogs back then) and proclaimed his dream of egalitarian ritual participation in the Bet Hamiqdash, the Holy Temple. He would have encouraged religious leaders to welcome women who wished to bring sacrifices to the Temple and to lean on them before they were offered (the Talmud in Rosh Hashana and Hagigah deals with the parameters of this halakhic subject). He would probably have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the halakhic principle that a non-Kohen can perform sacrificial slaughter, and sought to create opportunities for women to do so. He would have struggled mightily to involve women in the Temple Service to the full extent that Jewish Law allowed.
And yet, after all this work, he would be headed in the wrong direction, and he would be leading others down a literally God-forsaken path. "What need have I of your abundant sacrifices, the Word of Hashem," Isaiah proclaimed. Jeremiah preached, "But I spoke not unto your forefathers...Regarding burnt offering or sacrifice. But this thing I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way I instruct you..."
Hosea may have said it best, when he declared, "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; knowledge of God, and not burnt offerings."
The sacrifices of yesteryear (may they speedily return with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, God willing) are analogous to the public rituals of today. Our goal should not be the offering of more sacrifices, so to speak. Nor should we be clamoring to involve more people in officiating at our "sacrificial services". Instead, we should be promoting, encouraging and championing the life-changing and self-transformative study of Torah among both men and women of all ages.
It is only first and foremost through the deep and passionate study of Torah and then - in light of that Torah knowledge - through sincere and authentic prayer, acts of kindness and compassion, and the ceaseless pursuit of justice and charity that our people will find its way back to Hashem once and for all.
Emphasis on expanding women's roles in ritual performance will contribute more to the problem than to the solution. It reinforces an ancient, deeply entrenched and distorted view of Torah and further misdirects the focus of our religious life toward the outward signs, rather than the substance, of true knowledge of God and Divine service. To borrow a poignant phrase from the Rambam, this kind of initiative "leads neither to the fear of Hashem nor to the love of Him."