Jewish Women in Time and Torah; Women at Prayer; The Jewish Way

JEWISH WOMEN IN TIME AND TORAH by Eliezer Berkovits. Ktav, 1990. 143 pp., $16.95.

WOMEN AT PRAYER: A HALA-KHIC ANALYSIS OF WOMEN’S PRAYER GROUPS by Avraham Weiss. Ktav, 1990. 147pp., $16.95.

THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING THE HOLIDAYS by Irving Greenberg. Summit, 1988. 463 pp., $24.45.

Women are a people unto themselves,” says the Talmud. Are women part of the Jewish society, members of that community which stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God? The rabbis who developed the code of behavior governing the practice of Judaism did not seem to think so. Until recently, women were, as a matter of course, excluded from all areas of Jewish life outside of home and family. Orthodox Jews today still rigidly segregate and discriminate against women in the synagogue, study circles and home observances.

In Jewish Women in Time and Torah, Eliezer Berkovits, Orthodox rabbi and former professor of philosophy at Skokie Theological College, challenges the relevance of this position for today’s world.

Berkovits suggests three historical phases in the development of the status of women. The first, during biblical times was “Torah-toleration,” in which the law reflected what was found in society. The subordinate status of women was permitted, Berkovits explains, though it wasn’t actively advocated. Similarly, Judaism acquiesced in slavery (while protecting the slave and restricting the rights of the master) and in animal sacrifice (which Maimonides explained as a concession to the times that should ideally be done away with).

In the second, “Torah-directed,” phase (covering basically over two thousand years) the rabbis endeavored to establish the status of women as fully persons, moving away from the perception of them as objects to be used by men. For example, they made radical halakhic innovations to improve the rights of wives and daughters in family law. They also stretched the rules of evidence to allow the wives of “missing” husbands to remarry. Instead of the standard minimum of two free male witnesses, the rabbis allowed the testimony of only one person—male or female, slave or free— as sufficient to declare the missing husband dead—an amazing act of legal leniency.

Berkovits sees the next phase as contemporary, in which the entire Jewish community must strive to eliminate altogether the inferior status of women. It is here that he goes far beyond normative Orthodox opinion. He concludes that there is adequate halakhic justification for women to join with men in the Grace after Meals, to obligate themselves to the wearing of tefillin, to establish their own prayer groups, and to share with their husbands the mitzvah of reciting the Shabbat Kiddush. He argues in favor of removing the disabilities placed on women in the spheres of divorce, remarriage, inheritance, and all other areas of personal status.

A second book on the topic of women’s legal rights is Women at Prayer by Avraham Weiss, rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox congregation in New York City, and adviser to several Orthodox women’s prayer groups.

Weiss presents all the halakhic sources pertaining to women’s prayer groups, and he concludes that-contrary to opinions by many Orthodox rabbis-there are no halakhic impediments to women praying together as organized groups. This does not mean, of course, that he sanctions men and women worshipping together as equals, a stance that I regret.

I once attended a Bat Mitzvah at an Orthodox women’s prayer group. Since women were running the service, the men were relegated to the back of the room behind a mechitzah. Male family friends had to pass up the celebration as there were already nine men there from the family, and one more male would make a minyan. With a male minyan in the room, the women could no longer have their own prayer group. I relished the sight of men sitting at the back, barred from participation, but on second thought, the whole scene seemed terribly sad to me. I cherish the egalitarian inclusion of men and women in my davven-ing community, the feeling of belonging it gives me. Thus I am of two minds about Orthodox, all-women prayer groups.

Still, I welcome the affirmations of Weiss, and of Berkovits, too, not least because of the support they each lend to the Women of the Kotel, the women’s prayer group struggling to exercise their right to davven at the Wall in Jerusalem.

In the third book, Rabbi Greenberg, founder and guiding genius of CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) includes in his version of the Jewish calendar the rediscovered women’s holidays of Rosh Chodesh (the celebration of the new moon. These holidays not only mark the lunar cycle, but also give Orthodox women (who might feel shut out of the religious and spiritual observance of other days) a unique way to celebrate their womanhood.

LILITH readers will appreciate that Greenberg points out that although it is traditional for male members of the family to attend services on Friday night, “increasingly, more and more women also go, as women expand their participation in the spiritual life of the community.”

Perhaps what is most promising about The Jewish Way is Greenberg’s vision of halakha as a still growing and unfolding system, one which can incorporate the insights and adaptations that keep Judaism alive.

Those of us who have been fighting the battle for religious recognition for women in Judaism should be glad to hear the meaningful, though still quite limited, voices of these three Orthodox rabbis.

Marion Shulevitz, a Conservative rabbi, is staff chaplain at Hospital for Special Surgery and New York Hospital in New York City.