In the middle of the Glickman/Katz discussion on Facebook, there was a juxtaposition of the words progressive and the traditional phrase “our women” as well a discussion of the sanctity of the ezrat nashim (women’s section). This in turn lead to the guest post below from Miriam Gedwiser. This post is not a critique of either party, nor is it concerned with the original intentions of the authors, rather an essay on her perceptions of the rhetoric of the discussion as an woman.
“He who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, may He bless this entire holy congregation…them, their wives, sons, and daughters, and all that is theirs.” (~Shabbat Morning misheberach)
How is an Orthodox woman who reads these words supposed to react? Is she part of the “holy congregation” or just the wife of someone who is? What if she is no one’s wife?
Most likely, she has never noticed the incongruity. If she has, she probably continues to mumble these words with the same sort of intention she has regarding praying for the scholars of Babylonia a few paragraphs before – a “well, we get the basic idea” sentiment. But this text is just one in a wide web of small incongruities that add up to relegate women to the margins while men occupy the communal default. It’s the same web under which it is normal for a woman to attend a shul a half dozen times to say kaddish without any rabbi coming over to introduce himself or ask after her, while her visiting nephew will receive a welcome on his second visit.
Rabbis who do not want to needlessly exclude women need to watch how they talk and act. They need to stop saying “when each and every one of us puts on tefillin each morning” in a sermon to a half-female audience. They need to say “people” to a mixed audience only when they mean men and women. And this extends to learning Torah as well. When teaching halachot regarding gender distinctions, they should not talk in English about how “a man is obligated in X, but an ishah is not,” as if women are some strange halachic category unrelated to our world. Similarly, when a halachist talks about “our women,” he makes clear (even unintentionally) not only that his audience is male, but that the communal relationship of men to women is heirarchical, paternalistic, and exclusionary. (The same applies to those who talk this way while supporting expanded roles for women in the halachic world. link: https://thejewishstar.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/letters-to-the-editor-2-26-2010/)
It was therefore ironic to us to see Rabbi Katz’ teshuvah promoted – or derided – as unusually “progressive.” A teshuvah that allows some women marginally greater access to synagogue using paternalistic terms such as “our women” gets us no closer to true inclusion of women in the halachic community than if the same teshuvah reached the opposite conclusion. And if the opposite of “ezrat nashim” (women’s section) is called “ezrat yisrael” (Jewish section?), what does that say of the inclusion of women in the polity of Israel? At the beginning of his discussion, further, Rabbi Katz considers the (non-marginal) halachic position that the women’s section does not, in fact, have the same status of kedushat beit haknesset as the men’s. Even though he concludes that it does, the very discussion reinforces the underlying instinct that women are different, other, inherently outside.
Of course, Rabbi Katz did not invent these terms. This discussion is not about him or Rabbi Glickman. Still, in the case of phrases such as “our women,” he could have easily used something else, but he did not – why? It was suggested on facebook that that’s just how rabbis talk in “the style of traditional teshuvot.” The verbal exclusion of women becomes a self-justifying phenomenon. Others suggested that using this conventional language lends an air of authenticity to the teshuvah. Even if that was not R. Katz’s purpose, it is probably a correct description of the way first-impressions of halachic texts are sometimes formed: we ask, do they fit the lingo? But let’s think about that for a minute: We sense a halachic text is “real” or “authentic” in part because it marginalizes women. Further, when we pass matters of rhetoric and enter the substance, had Rabbi Katz not addressed whether the women’s section is an equal part of the beit knesset, it would have been an omission worthy of critique. So the only way to halachically discuss being slightly more inclusive of certain women in synagogue life is to raise concepts that inherently alienate all women, as a category, from the synagogue..
Which is perhaps why this author (a nursing mother and professional teacher of Torah) is writing a critique not of the substance of Rabbi Katz’s halachic discussion, but on the meta-question of the nature of halachic discourse. I can’t get to the former without wading through the latter, and at some point reading texts that are about yourself, but not for you, becomes too hard to let pass without comment.