Justifying Jewish Law (i.e., Helping it to become more just)

“The smartest thing that could have been done to keep women out of leadership roles [in the Conservative movement] would have been to keep women out of the Talmud department,”quipped Talmud scholar Rabbi Judith Hauptman at a November symposium on “Women in Law/Women in Halakhah.”

“This might be the first public forum for a discussion about how women have achieved their heightened status in Jewish law and American civil legislation,” announced Lisa Kogen, coordinator of the symposium, which was sponsored by the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the sisterhood organization of Conservative synagogues. In the opening plenary, Hauptman, Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS, and Dr.Alyssa Gray, Assistant Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, addressed key issues of women’s roles under Jewish law (halakhah), including the obligation to pray, the evolution of bat mitzvah and the ordination of women as rabbis and cantors. With a staggering command of the Talmudic evidence,Hauptman chronicled some of her own battles to push for an expansion of women’s halakhic roles to keep Judaism in line with our human ethical impulses. She showed how such halakhic changes are not new to Judaism: The Torah teaches that a man who rapes a woman must take her as his wife, but the Talmudic rabbis, in an act of “interpretive subversion,”added a stipulation requiring the woman’s consent in the matter.

What about civil law? Professor Elizabeth M. Schneider of Brooklyn Law School, an expert on gender and law, reviewed landmark developments in women’s relationship to American civil law, starting with the 1872 case Bradwell V. Illinois, in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was natural and proper for women to be excluded from the legal profession to maintain the “respective spheres of man and woman,” with women performing the duties of motherhood and wife in accordance with the “law of the Creator.” Likewise, the ruling in the 1951 Hoyt V. Florida case gave women—but not men—outright exemption from jury service, on the grounds that a woman’s role in the home and family was so important that she should not be encumbered by other obligations. In citing these cases, Schneider was, of course, speaking about women becoming lawyers and not rabbis, about women’s exemption from jury service rather than from prayer. But the parallels were not lost on the over 200 women (and a handful of men), at the daylong event, which was held at the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.

A special initiative brought in 50 high school girls from Conservative day schools. This program, run by Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed, trained the students for advocacy in their own schools. “I don’t feel comfortable wearing a tallit, maybe because my mom didn’t wear one,” commented Aliza Sternstein of the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island. On the other hand, Harriet Merkowitz, a longstanding member of Women’s League who might have been Aliza’s mother’s age, reflected that “When I was 13, I didn’t want to have a bat mitzvah. But I’ve come a long way. I don’t wear tefillin, but I do wear a tallit. How this has all happened fascinates me.”