Pushing the halachic envelope for women
I share with my readers this month parts of the tribute I gave at Rabbi David Hartman’s shloshim gathering in Toronto.
I’ve been patronizingly reminded by many Orthodox rabbis in my life that “men and women are different, so they have different roles and different rules, and why are you so upset about it?” – which takes a deep and profound question of the nature of gender, humanity and the religious enterprise and turns it into a “one unhappy feminist” scenario unbefitting the seriousness of the theological challenge.
But I’ve been equally privileged to meet deeply thoughtful Orthodox rabbis who have struggled with Judaism’s gender inequalities, not as a statement of “Oh those poor, angry women who don’t understand the beauty of Judaism’s gender roles” but as part and parcel of their inquiry into a sustainable Judaism. Chief among them, ahead of his time and public in his discourse on women and Halachah, was my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman. Studying with him shook my preconceived notions about the intractability of this issue, for he wrote and practised an Orthodoxy that was engaged and wrestling meaningfully with the traditional boundaries of women’s participation and – more importantly – with a Halachah that preaches the full human dignity of women, but doesn’t always practise it.
He rested on an underlying principle that is stronger than any “piecemeal” solution giving women access to this thing or that, or giving temporary “permissions” for women to participate in this activity or that. In his book A Heart of Many Rooms, he writes, “It is not only to legal norms that we owe our allegiance, but also to the values and the human character that these attempt to realize.” He constantly taught that his halachic innovations around women were an attempt to realize the values of human dignity that Judaism teaches.
In his last book, The God Who Hates Lies, he attacks the condescending methodologies of discourse. In speaking about the refusal of the Orthodox establishment in Israel to solve the problem of agunot –women whose husbands won’t give them a Jewish divorce, creating a lifetime of anguish and isolation – he questions the halachist who said, seemingly empathetic of the agunot, “It’s my personal Akeidah!” Not being able or ready or willing to halachically solve the problem of thousands of chained women was the rabbi’s own personal test of faith? Hartman boldly asked, “Your Akeidah? Is that supposed to bring comfort to the abandoned woman whose life is passing her by?”
But perhaps he is most well known among those who struggle with Judaism’s gender biases for his courageous and landmark decision to support the establishment of Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, the first “partnership minyan” where separate-seating Orthodox davening is the norm, along with women having aliyot and reading Torah and leading certain parts of the service from their side of the mechitzah (which retracts, by the way, for the Torah reading and for the dvar Torah.) Of this he wrote, “I became unable to justify women’s exclusion from a minyan; why should they be denied the religious dignity that comes with full communal participation, treated, in essence, as if they were not there? I cannot be bound, or insist that others be bound, by a halachic theology that privileges certain kinds of sperm, wombs, and genes and stigmatizes others.”
He did not support Shira Hadasha because it made women feel better. He supported Shira Hadasha because he rejected the halachic theology that privileges men. What’s more, he rejected the notion that biology is spiritual destiny, that there is an essential, existential “female nature” of woman that is eternal and factually true. Rabbi Hartman writes, “Is the woman we see walking the streets today the woman of the Talmud? No authority in the world can convince me that she is; no past authority can make it into a reality… So then this creates the conflict: The God who loves permanence wants us to deny what we experience, while the God who hates lies wants us to give it credence.”
The God who demands I be truthful, Rabbi Hartman would say, is the God who brings the truth of gender inequality onto my tongue and into open, listening ears.
Rabbi Hartman was, for me, a mighty partner in this particular tikkun olam, which the God who hates lies is still waiting to see completed.