Will we take a religious position on equality?

I am a Conservative rabbi. But I have Conservative colleagues who wouldn’t call me for an aliyah to the Torah because I am a woman. I say, this is an affront to my honor. But I risk being accused of “intolerance” — of the one who will not recognize me.

So, foregoing a ritual in order to coexist within a “pluralist” movement: what’s the big deal? Well, it’s true that “egalitarianism” is about such things as counting in a minyan, receiving aliyot, etc., but it’s also about leadership — and rituals are not just honorifics, they are about who we are in the world.

The participants in a Torah service reenact receiving the Torah at Sinai, and share the role of Moses. Moses embodies the ethical and ritual model we collectively aspire to; to practice and teach the ethical and ritual law, to serve God, and model righteousness to others. The bimah is a microcosm of the world; what we do there tells what we believe. When women are on the bimah, it says that men and women are equal citizens; that our leadership, too, honors the Torah and the congregation. 

Some frame egalitarianism as compassionate “inclusion” of those once relegated to the women’s auxiliary. But that wasn’t the impetus toward egalitarian practice. Rather, it was the same impulse that drove us into the streets, marching for the rights of workers, and for civil rights, and impelled us in every place and every time to establish rule of law and work for justice, above and beyond the requirements of our own laws. The revolutionary premise behind the Covenant and all its laws is that all human beings belong equally to God, their Creator. That was the lesson of our exodus from Egypt, and the premise behind the laws we received at Sinai. Everything, even ritual, ultimately is corollary to, and serves, that religious truth. 

True, permission was sought from the halakha for women to be “granted” access to honor and responsibility — it being deemed that that form of human equality might not just be a fad — but it was still treated as if it were a personal choice one can dismiss or not, as one chooses. And this attitude yielded “pluralism,” a divergent stance, within one movement — on an issue of human equality. 

But one cannot actually “permit” that which one has no authority to deny. Equality is recognized, not granted; one doesn’t ask permission for that which is inherent; one stands up and calls for the imperative: that equal citizenship be honored, whether for ourselves or on behalf of others. If one woman is a full citizen in Am Yisrael, we all are — and always were, and our recognition is an obligation, not an option.

Conservative Judaism holds that halakha is not a box of sacred laws, but a sacred living system mediating our evolution, bringing us closer, and the world closer, to what God intends. We balance the particulars of being covenanted, with the needs of the world. There are things we bring to a living legal system — the facts on the ground, and our own understanding of the context. In this case, that is the evidence that men and women are equal, that women are free Israelites (not pre-empted by men from service to God), and that all free Israelites are equal in responsibility and honor. 

The issue isn’t tolerance of those who believe differently, but that we haven’t taken a stand as to what Conservative Judaism holds, on a fundamental principle. And this condition is untenable both for us, and for seekers, who cannot see where our high ground is. Jews who do understand equality as a religious imperative note that our “permitting” equality undercuts our moral authority and our credibility from the left side. And we shouldn’t pretend to Orthodoxy’s form of “working within the system:” their view of halakha espouses the eternal sanctity and wisdom of laws we consider self-evidently (and halakhically) unjust.

Moses’ job was not a man’s job, though he was a man. “Rabbi” is not a man’s job, though all rabbis once were men. And equality is the most “traditional” value of them all.