Why I Became Fascinated by a Teshuvah on Women and Mitzvot

With the backdrop of the kavanah of the hundreds of thousands of women and men around the world demanding rights for women as humans, it felt as though perhaps the epicenter of Jewish law and thought had been temporarily relocated to our suburb.

As formidable a speaker as she is a writer, Rabbi Barmash spoke about her longstanding role on the Conservative movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, known informally as the “Law Committee.” She discussed the gradual changes the committee is implementing in streamlining its docket and that they are now for the first time inviting testimony from the class of laity potentially impacted by the committee’s halakhic decisions. She spoke, too, of the beauty of observing mitzvot and feeling close to Torah. By contrast, she argued that for too long women and other minorities have been alienated from God and Torah by the errors of halakhic interpretation she sought to rectify with her 2014 teshuvah. Over and over, Rabbi Dr. Barmash urged love of mitzvot and shamayim, the heavens.

Those involved in institutional life often observe that cultural change is difficult—arguing that institutions are like huge ocean liners which are hard to turn. Usually, this functions as an appeal for more time and serves to maintain the status quo. As an advocate and activist, I retort by saying that it is also important not to let the ship sink. Change must thus to be timely to save institutions and the passengers on the ship.

I still have no way to gauge whether the Law Committee (and the Conservative movement, by extension) will change course or capsize. The teshuvah I found profound three years ago is one of many hundreds authored, but which are often observed in the breach. It remains to be seen if Jews will feel bound to the holdings of this committee and the movement it represents. 

While I do feel bound to Judaism, I no longer feel tethered to the Conservative movement. I hope it succeeds in righting its course. Whether post-denominational, Modern Orthodox, or some other label, I will continue to adhere and resist. Maybe that’s just me. 

What I do know is that a message I personally needed to hear washed up on my shore three years ago, resulted in a wave sent back by way of a fan letter asking for the author to come speak, which led to another wave of a hundred or so people who would not have otherwise heard it receiving the message, too. Who knows where it all drifts and sails? 

Maybe, someday, we will finally crack the bottles that isolate our messages, shatter the glass ceilings that alienate us from mitzvot, and pierce the heavens with our prayers for law and justice to elevate our lives for blessing.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.