Climbing Out of Our Trenches: Towards a Different Conversation About Women and Orthodoxy

Our recent communal engagements around women and Orthodoxy have taken on something of the aspect of trench warfare.  On either side, partisans are deeply dug in to their respective positions, lobbing intense verbal volleys over no man’s land to detonate over the trenches on the other side, strewing shrapnel indiscriminately. Periodically, a frontal assault is launched at a particular position and, if it breaks through, we just dig in to new trenches 500 yards down the battlefield. Whether it succeeds or fails, the casualties are high; the progress in either direction not at all commensurate with the costs.

The essential contestedness of the roles of women within Orthodox ritual and leadership is not going away anytime soon, and thus neither will the communal debates surrounding these issues. But there are things we as a community can do to engage in these debates in ways that feel more purposeful and less destructive–ways we can climb out of our trenches and engage in a different conversation around women and Orthodoxy.  


Don’t Impute Motives

In any debate over women’s communal and halakhic roles, the Orthodox community’s version of Godwin’s Law is that the longer the debate continues, the greater the certainty that not only one’s policy decisions or halakhic conclusions, but one’s motivations, will be impugned. The imputation of unstated motives instantly renders toxic any conversation in which it is inserted. “She’s only doing that because she’s a feminist who wants to undermine Orthodoxy.” “He’s only resisting that because he’s a man bent on maintaining his power.” Those arguments delegitimate, give offense, and are not subject to being disproven. And yet, combatants on both sides often resort to them. “All people of good sense, integrity, and yirat shamayim will obviously arrive at the conclusions at which I arrive. If you don’t, you must be evil, stupid, or in it for power.” They leave us stuck in ruts in our discourse, and our thinking. If you have only arrived at your conclusion through character flaws, insufficient religious seriousness, or venality, there is nothing about your argument that I must engage with seriously or even learn from. We can easily set aside the other position without seriously considering the challenge it poses, and perhaps even reconsidering our own. (Which may account for the popularity of this mode of argumentation–it is confirming, and not demanding.)

While these charges are leveled in every direction, women in particular find themselves subject to this sort of attack. When a man seeks to enter semikha, no one asks him to prove to their satisfaction that he has no motivation other than the l’shem shamayim before accepting him. A man can enter semikha for the glory, the stipend (granted, both less than likely), the chance to delay a decision about graduate school, or the desire to annoy his parents, as well as for the calling to tend God’s flock. When a woman seeks a leadership role, or even simply to engage in advanced Torah study, however, she can quickly find herself asked to prove that she is doing so for all of the right reasons, and none of the wrong ones. (Even institutions that afford advanced Torah learning opportunities to women can, in their desire to mark themselves as being on the “acceptable” side of the line, contribute to this climate by rushing to offer assurances that their students harbor no such nefarious motives or ambitions.)

R’ Aharon Lichtenstein described the twin phenomena of insisting that the other side has bad motivation, and denying that it has values, in his searing address to Yeshivat Har Etzion in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin:


The self-confidence that arises from commitment and
devotion to a world of values and eternal truths … sometimes has led to frightening levels of self-certainty and ultimately to arrogance.  This arrogance has sometimes led us to act without sufficient responsibility for other
people, and at times even without responsibility to other values.  “We
are good, we have values, and they are worthless” – this attitude has
seeped deeper and deeper into our consciousness….


Sometimes we taught our students to belittle and suspect
others.  One who doesn’t agree with us is criminal, not merely mistaken.
Any opportunity to credit a public leader with good intention was
rejected in order to credit him with alienation, with hostility, with
malice – not a suspicion of evil, but a certainty!  From this way of
thinking, horrible things can result.


An important note: there is a fundamental asymmetry here between the right and the left. The right is more likely to claim only one possible permissible way; the left by definition admits multiple perspectives and views. Thus, even when subjected to delegitimating attacks from the right, the left is only true to its own stated principles if it does not allow itself to respond in kind. The left needs to acknowledge the values embedded in the right’s position, even as the right does not reciprocate–not because the right demands it, but because the left does. (This may feel like a unilateral disarmament, but if it is any comfort, the Talmud is fulsome in its praise for those who are “insulted but do not insult.” [Social media has given all of us ample opportunity to garner those blessings.])

None of this stops all of us from disagreeing, profoundly. None of this stops us from decrying, strongly, actions that we see as wrongheaded, non-halakhic, harmful to Orthodoxy’s future or heedless of its past. But there is a vast difference between saying “what you are doing is non-halakhic, wrongheaded, bad for the Jews–and I nevertheless recognize that your actions stem from your understanding of our shared Jewish values and commitments” and saying “you are clearly doing these wrong things because you are stupid, evil, or in it for power.” (If you think “with all due respect” sounds perfunctory or insincere in a debate, you have never heard a debate carried out without even paying lip service to granting the other side all due respect.)

By denying the possibility of goodwill or good intentions, in a manner impossible to falsify, imputation of motives offends, obstructs, and obscures. Stop doing it.


Harvest Low-Hanging Fruit

As much rancor and disagreement as there is in the Modern Orthodox world about women in the ritual sphere or leadership roles, there are many places where women’s participation is universally accepted and indeed welcomed, and where attempts to foster it would be generally agreed-upon and uncontroversial. By focusing the conversation on the most hot-button issues, we ensure a maximum of heat without proportionate light. There are, however, many points of agreement on which progress could be made regarding women’s participation and public roles, before we go back to fighting about the tough ones. Here are a few among many examples:

  1. In many Centrist and Modern Orthodox shuls, a woman arriving to daven shacharit on a weekday morning is not assured of finding a place in shul. That is no metaphor: there is no mechitzah, physically no space for her to be. The message of unbelonging, uninvitedness is clear. No one defends this on principle, and if we pushed on it, many more congregations, their consciousness raised, would ensure that any woman coming to shacharit on a Tuesday morning has a place to pray. In our shuls, there is no principle implicated here. (Often, it is simply that tefillah on weekday mornings is carried out not in the main sanctuary, but in a smaller auxiliary space.) Our communities should commit–we should nudge and push and demand our communities to commit–to never holding tefillah b’tzibbur without a place for women to daven. This is true not only in shul, but in the impromptu tefillot that happen at weddings, conferences, and other events. When we gather as a community to daven, if we do not always ensure that there is a place for women, we are communicating to women that they are not part of normal Orthodoxy, but a special category of people for whom special accommodations can be made–if they ask. The barrier for participation for women is thus raised much higher. In order to participate, a woman has to be comfortable entering that unwelcoming space, and asking.

(A number of years ago, I was at the North American Jewish Day Schools Conference–a gathering, it hardly need be said, of Jewish educators. At the appointed time, I went to the designated room for mincha. A man approached and very respectfully asked if I wouldn’t mind leaving the room, as they were about to daven mincha there. Mustering my toothiest smile, I replied, “I know. That’s why I’m here.” A mechitza was rustled up forthwith. [Well, between the response and the rustling I might have expressed myself forcefully to one of the conference organizers, which might also have had something to do with it.])

2. Too many of our rosters of speakers, panels, or scholar-in-residence lineups could comfortably meet on the men’s side of the mechitzah. That’s not being defended as a matter of principle–it’s being defended with a series of mealy-mouthed and thoroughly uncompelling excuses. If we pushed on it, not in ugly internet flaming, but in a reasoned and reasonable calls to the organizing parties, we could effect meaningful change. (Organizers: answers like “we asked the women and they said no”, “there are no women who speak on this topic”, “we couldn’t offer any provisions for child care” are so much hogwash. And if the questions you’re asking can only be answered by men, you’re asking the wrong questions.) We can insist that women be on the education committees that engage communal scholars, and that the people whom we put up in front of our shuls, schools, and communities as roles models and teachers are representative of the entirety of our communities, not just half of them.

3. The language used in settings from rabbis’ sermons to our communal publications often presupposes, however, unwittingly, that all Orthodox Jews are men. “The reason why Orthodox Jews wear tzitzit” ignores the fact that 50% of Orthodox Jews will never wear tzitzit, however scrupulous they are in observance. Again, this is a lack-of-thinking, not a principle, and it is amenable to change if we are persistent and insistent in asking for it. There are some who may tell you not to be so politically correct; that language doesn’t matter. Inevitably, they will be people in the centered, not the marginalized, position in these language divides. But many rabbis, or writers, or shul presidents making announcements, will hear the reasoned argument, and adjust. (All Orthodox men everywhere: stop saying, “We need N more people for a minyan.” You do not need people. I am people, and my presence doesn’t help you. If you need N more men for a minyan, say so. I can handle not being counted in a minyan. I have a little bit of a harder time not counting as people.)

These examples are not exhaustive. They are a place for us to start; surely there are many others.  Making progress on them will be helpful in its own right, in redefining who is a default member of the Orthodox community, a default participant in tefilla, a default teacher/scholar. And it will be helpful in marking a communal approach of constructively engaging toward shared goals, rather than lobbing artillery.


Don’t Underestimate the Power of the Determined Few

It’s easy to underestimate our ability to drive even those changes that shouldn’t be terribly controversial. We who care deeply about these issues can feel ourselves few in number, and the forces of apathy or resistance arrayed in front of us can seem to loom powerfully. We may be, but they don’t. The whole Orthodox community is just not all that big, and a few voices, especially if coordinated and persistent, can achieve a great deal. (As a school administrator, I see this phenomenon from the other side. It doesn’t take all that many parents raising a problem to our attention for it to assume crisis proportions.)

Arlo Guthrie described this phenomenon in his 1960s classic “Alice’s Restaurant”:

And if three people do it! Can you imagine three people walkin’ in, singin’

A bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walkin’ out? They may think it’s an


And can you imagine fifty people a day? I said FIFTY people a day . . .

Walkin’ in, singin’ a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walkin’ out? Friends,

They may think it’s a MOVEMENT, and that’s what it is: THE ALICE’S


If we get three people to speak out about something, we’re an organization.

A couple of months ahead of the crocuses, ads for Pesach programs begin to sprout in Jewish publications. And as they do, we find ourselves looking across a landscape almost as devoid of women’s faces as anything in HaModia or Yated. Program after program advertises scholar after scholar, and the women are rare-to-nonexistent. We may mutter and gnash our teeth in frustration and a sense of powerlessness, but if the frustration is deeply-felt, the powerlessness is illusory. The total target audience for these programs is not that large. A few polite but pointed phone calls, asking about the absence of women as scholars-in-residence, may well effect meaningful change. (And a couple of grateful phone calls to those programs that do feature women scholars will let them know that we notice, and care, that they are doing the right thing.)

Note again and always what this is not: it is not a call for internet flaming, denunciation, or generalized name-calling. We have no shortage of that in our community, and it’s not doing us a whole lot of good. It is a call for a reasoned, thoughtful interaction, asking for a specific and realistic remedies. Such requests have yielded and will continue to yield results.


If A Divorce Must Come, Let It Be A Conscious Uncoupling

Ultimately, as many areas of common ground as we can find, and as much agreed-upon progress as we can make, the divisions around women’s ritual participation and leadership roles may not be paper-over-able, and the differences may be irreconcilable. But if divorce must come, let it be a conscious uncoupling. (If you recognize that term, you have just outed yourself as a reader of People Magazine.) When Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow announced their separation, they let it be known that the were working with relationship guru Katherine Woodward Thomas towards a “conscious uncoupling”–a dissolution of their marriage with “mutual respect, kindness, and deep caring.” In the case of a dissolving relationship, this approach has the merit of easing the way forward, joined as the exes will be by shared custody of their children. In the case of Orthodoxy, even if the denomination splits, we will be joined by shared custody of our families, our shuls, our schools, and, ultimately, our commitments and futures as Jews. Unity and comity are good things, but I am not at all convinced that the community is better served by a false front that tries to conceal or patch the deep discord behind it than by frank acknowledgment of irreconcilable differences. I am certain, however, that further denunciation, out-throwing, and name-calling is not what the community needs. If you decide you cannot daven in a shul that follows a certain practice, don’t. If you feel you cannot eat in someone’s home, don’t. (You could invite them to yours, or go out to eat together to a very kosher establishment.)  But do it without rancor, bitterness, and ugliness. Goodness knows, we don’t need any more of that.


Pirkei Avot teaches that any dispute that is for the sake of heaven will endure. Decades ago, I heard Rabbi Berel Wein say that this means that when a dispute is not merely a fight about personalities or power, but a bedrock dispute of Judaism which implicates fundamental Jewish values on either side, the dispute itself endures. It is not subject to being simply, neatly resolved and put to rest. The debates over women’s ritual participation and leadership roles will continue to be engaged in, as they should. They will not be settled easily. What we can do is find a way to engage in those debates that helps us make headway as a community, rather than sitting here, getting trench foot and gangrene and waiting for the shells to fall.

6 thoughts on “Climbing Out of Our Trenches: Towards a Different Conversation About Women and Orthodoxy

  1. “All Orthodox men everywhere: stop saying, “We need N more people for a minyan.”

    I remember a humorous story I read some time ago about a well-known Chassidic rebbetzin. At a dinner, the MC said something like , “I would like to thank all the people, as well as the women, who were involved in organizing the event”. The rebbetzin said to her neighbor, “what, women are not people ?”

    No doubt the MC had no misogynistic intentions, but language of inclusion is important.


  2. Another example of the language issue is referring to God as male, when God has no gender. Try to get speakers to say God an God’s instead of He and His. People not used to this will take notice.


  3. If an honest study of the issues leads one to the conclusion that “the divisions around women’s ritual participation and leadership roles may not be paper-over-able, and the differences may be irreconcilable. ‘ leading to a “conscious uncoupling:, why should you want to pluck the low lying fruit.? Why not just get on with the divorce?

    Also when you say that “if we do not always ensure that there is a place for women, we are communicating to women that they are not part of normal Orthodoxy, but a special category of people for whom special accommodations can be made–if they ask” you are begging the question. Perhps both men and women are each a special category, each a part of normal Orthodoxy even though they do not have the same roles.


    1. 1. Right now, there are both substantive issues and a great deal of of personal and group hostility in play. One goal of addressing low-hanging fruit would be to have people who might not agree about the big things work together on the small things, and thus engage with each other as allies, not as enemies. Whether the goodwill and mutual understanding that that engenders forestalls the divorce, or just enables it to proceed more civilly, it will be l’toelet either way.

      2. There is an Orthodox community that fully buys those separate spheres arguments, that is comfortable with women neither being seen nor heard; that will explain to you why men should actually be envious of women who get to stay home with their kids on the yamim noraim rather than go to shul. That community is internally consistent, makes sense on its own terms, and works for its own members. It makes no sense, and is untenable as a response, in a community that sends its daughters to university educations, professional careers, and leadership in many arenas. The latter is the community that I was addressing. I do not presume to impose my values or choices on the former community, as they would make no more sense in its context than its would make in mine (and because I have seen it up close enough, and for long enough, to know that it really does work for many on its own terms, including its women.)


      1. It seems clear from your article that the purpose of “harvesting the low hanging fruit “ is not merely to reduce friction by emphasizing points of argument. It is to make “progress” regarding women’s participation and public roles, i.e. it is to go as far as in the direction that you want that those who do not share your goals will allow before a parting of the ways. But what if that is not considered to be progress but rather an unfortunate, albeit tolerable, dilution of the way it should be. It seems to me that it would be more honest to leave alone a system that as you put it works for many without trying to bend it to your way of thinking.

        Of greater significance is that your evaluation is framed in terms of what is comfortable, who should be envious of whom, what works for people who go to university, etc. A system must be devised that is comfortable, that eliminates the envy that some may feel, and is congenial to contemporary patterns of behavior. These are not the criteria by which the behavior of Orthodox Jews should be guided.


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