Partnership Minyanim – Challenging Authoritarian Religion

This article, dealing with some of the attacks made on a new development in Orthodox Judaism, originally appeared in Haaretz on 14/04/2015 - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.651557?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter .

For a fuller treatment of some of its themes, see my previous post ‘The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’ .

Recent opposition within British Orthodoxy to partnership minyanim – Orthodox services with greater female participation – poses a test case for a bigger question: are people in today’s world still prepared to submit to a group of rabbis whom they feel to be out of touch with their reality?

In his recent attack on partnership minyanim, Rabbi Harvey Belovski asserts that there is no justification for this form of egalitarian prayer in Jewish law. The criticism, officially sanctioned by the British United Synagogue Rabbinic Council, rests, for all of its scholarly and technical language, on one simple argument: We, the consensus Orthodox Rabbinate, have total authority and it is illegitimate to follow anyone who disagrees with us.

It is a straightforward and unashamed attempt to stake out authority, brought on by the fear that authority seems to be slipping away.

Belovski hints at this fear by suggesting that accepting partnership minyanim might push some worshippers into different denominations, beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. This is a cheap and disingenuous move, avoiding genuine engagement and playing to the presumption that everyone in Orthodoxy is convinced of the non-legitimacy of every other denomination of Judaism. This is also implied by his insistence that no other halakhic authorities back Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s position in support of partnership minyanim. He means Orthodox halakhic authorities – other denominations are simply not even worth mentioning.

Regime of fear

Trying to articulate a positive statement of values has always been problematic for Orthodoxy. It prefers to preserve authority through a more fear-based regime, wherein anyone who takes an ‘excessively’ progressive stance is suddenly branded an outcast, treif. Blacklisted projects include anything interdenominational such as Limmud and JcoSS (a pluralist school), with the list growing as the anxiety of the rabbinate increases. Partnership minyanim are just the latest example.

Those involved in partnership minyanim might well be feeling frustrated. They’ve tried so hard to respect Orthodox practice, to follow a reputable and learned rabbinic expert, to ground every decision in traditional halakhic process.

But it would never be enough; in a world where fundamentalism is on the rise, where the treatment of women in conservative religion is getting worse rather than better, any pathways to progress were always going to arouse fierce resistance.

Authority bellows loudly when it feels the ground is giving. The Frimer responsa against partnership minyanim, at 172 highly detailed pages, bears witness to this desperation.

The folly of such an encyclopedic response is clear. Halakha – literally, the way – is about balancing the values of tradition with the changing circumstances of human existence. The meaning of any practice, let alone text, changes over time. Insisting that women stay at home or have little role in public worship was not a particularly significant statement in a time when women generally stayed at home and had little role in public life. The rabbis of ancient tradition were not especially or uniquely misogynist; they were simply following the ways of their world, as they had been for thousands of years.

But in a world where women exist outside the home, and play a major role in every aspect of public life, the decision to insist that they be segregated behind a curtain and offered no role in public worship has a very different meaning. It is a singular statement of sexual discrimination and oppression. It perhaps expresses a longing for a simpler, less confusing time, when women knew “their place” and the men could dominate unchallenged.

An evolving tradition

It is worth clarifying that the Jewish tradition has often evolved in ways that disregarded previous textual sources, and which left legislators struggling to keep up. Significant sections of the Talmud are dedicated to squaring practice with text, and this continues even into the works of the medieval Tosafists. It is a very modern conception that we inhabit a chain of unbroken practice, that any question can be answered by reference to textual examination. It marks, as Dr. Haym Soloveitchik argues, an age of religious insecurity, wherein a disconnect from any sense of God’s presence is bolstered by deeper commitment to His Texts.

Reflecting again on the changing meanings of practice, Rabbi Belovski’s statements of sympathy towards women at the end of the article also ring hollow. Perhaps he feels frustrated by the structural matrix he inhabits, but his article shows little willingness to challenge it.

His citing of English property law as a model for halakha also hits a sour note, given the ways that Jewish law has historically related to women as property, as something to be acquired. We should surely want to distance ourselves from comparisons which trigger such uncomfortable associations.

The nature of halakha and its role in Jewish life is beyond the scope of this article (I have written about it at length it elsewhere). But two poles of thinking can be put as follows. In one it is a heavenly code of law, on the basis of which God – or man – might decide punishments and excommunication, or which might seal one’s fate in the afterlife.

At the other pole it is “not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12), but it is a pathway of life, whose ways are those of pleasantness, catalyzing the revelation of God’s image in human life.

In line with this second option, many today have renewed faith that religion can be a powerful resource in the search for vitality, meaning and integrity. If partnership minyanim are part of such a renaissance then I believe they should be encouraged and accommodated. Striking such a committed and enthusiastic group from one’s camp can only be a very negative foreboding of things to come.

 

Repressing A Hundred Women Berakhot 46 and 47

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Thus beginneth Charles Dickens in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and I find it a very accurate rendering of my feelings towards the discussion of Zimun that we are currently in the midst of.

Some of the best we touched on before Rosh Hashana, the profundity of creating space in our lives for the Divine after every meal, at a time when we might feel most appalled with our fleshy gluttony.  (We can talk about that post Rosh Hashana, it’s the one book we all knew we’d be inscribed in.)

And we see a further rooting of the principle of gratitude in the instruction to give the honour of leading grace to a guest, so that he may praise his host with a most touching blessing:

May it be Your will that the master of the house shall not suffer shame in this world, nor humiliation in the World-to-Come.

And may he be very successful with all his possessions, and may his possessions and our possessions be successful and near the city, and may Satan control neither his deeds nor our deeds, and may no thought of sin, iniquity, or transgression stand before him or before us from now and for evermore.

It is not enough – or maybe it is asking too much? – to merely praise God after our meal, to remind ourselves that the existence of so much bountiful and delectable nourishment is something that we should never take for granted, that in other times and other places they would have been quite literally sickened by our abundance.  It is not enough to realise that obtaining the physical nutrition we need might easily have been an altogether less pleasant and hearty experience, that nature could have made the whole thing much more perfunctory, with much less richness of occasion than we presently afford it.

No, that would not be enough.  For in the case when another family have invited us to share a meal with them, when they have opened their doors and hearts to us, embodying the hospitality of our forefather Abraham, when they have disregarded financial considerations to share whatever it is that they may have with us, prioritising togetherness over affluence, then we must do more.

In such a case we must focus on them, thank them, praise them, and bless them that their home and their hearts should remain open and pure and untainted.

Perhaps through thanking the people in front of us, through overcoming our fiendish narcissism in a more concrete and straightforward context, we might come closer to the enduring and everpresent spirit of gratitude that we seek to imbue our lives with.

Perhaps there is also a caution, a rebuke – “It is great to thank God, but that is worthless if you cannot also thank the human being in front of you, for whatever small or great thing they have done.”

Perhaps the rebuke runs deeper, teaches us something more profound – “ There is a danger that your religious practice and attitude can simply become another form of narcissism, another way of detaching yourself from the reality and relatedness that actually surround you.  There is a hairsbreadth of difference between religion which leads man away from narcissism and a religion which provides a protective shell for one’s narcissism, wherein an apparent opening to Otherness actually becomes or masks a deeply problematic disavowal of Otherness, a tightening of the excessively self-centred bind.  No one but you, in your heart of hearts, can know which you are engaged with, but let the Zimun be a reminder to you that to be engaged with God is to be fully and totally engaged with your fellow men.”

So this would be a positive thing to take from Zimun – it was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom.

We may notice however that all is not entirely well even at this point – we bless the male host, and all that belongs to him, but what about his partner in hosting, his wife?  What about the woman who most likely spent hours planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, tidying and preparing to bring the meal to the table?  What about the way in which her female warmth and spirit actually generated the welcoming atmosphere which made their hospitality so cherished?

No, apparently she is not worthy of mention.  She cannot be included in the Zimun,  and she is not to be praised by the one making the Zimun.  Her absence, and those of her hundred female companions, screams out from the text with a piercing wail.

On Rosh Hashana God remembered the three barren women of our history:  Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.  But the Rabbis seem to have forgotten them, to have deemed them irrelevant to religious life.

It was the worst of times; it was the age of foolishness.

And, as we’ve said before in discussing Talmudic attitudes to women, I really do believe that it is a reflection of the times, that the times were heavily gendered and separate, where men and women occupied different spaces, and where they didn’t much reflect on the possibility of interaction, of the way those spaces interpenetrated.

It was of the times, but there is nothing authentically Jewish about it.  There is no sense in which maintaining, defending and propagating these values fulfils our role of being a light unto the nations, of perfecting the world through God’s kingship, of embodying the unwritten Torah through our disclosure of virtue.

And I think we would do better to stop pretending that it does.

When the Rabbis say on 45b that ‘a hundred women are like two men’ we are better off taking this statement at face value and accepting what it tells us.  In those days women were not respected, they were not regarded as man’s spiritual equal.  And perhaps you want to say otherwise, that it’s all to do with their being on an elevated plane, they don’t need Zimun because they are such ethereal beings, so unhindered and unburdened by the weakness and temptations of men?

No, that doesn’t wash, as the next sentences make clear:

Why can’t women and slaves form a Zimun together? 

Because we are suspicious of lewd behaviour and promiscuity. 

The spiritual argument just doesn’t hold up, we are much better to say “that was then, this is now, we need to re-think this whole business because they were inhabiting a different world with significantly less enlightened values”.

It was, truly, the season of Darkness.

And yet, in the spirit of light, hearing our concern, we witness a paradigm of halakhic progress before our very eyes.

We hear an early Tannaic opinion which states that an ‘am ha’aretz’ – someone uneducated – may not participate in a Zimun.

There follows a cautionary tale from the Talumdic era which warns of the dangers of this exclusivity:

Rami bar Ĥama did not include Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa, who studied Sifra, Sifrei, and halakhot, in a Zimun because he had merely studied and did not serve Torah scholars.[I.e. he was, on one definition, an am ha’aretz.]

When Rami bar Ĥama passed away, Rava said: Rami bar Ĥama died only because he did not include Rabbi Menashya bar Taĥlifa in a zimmun.

This may sound a bit shocking, was this really a crime worthy of punishment by death?

The Gemara senses this problem:

Why, then, was Rami bar Ĥama punished?

The Gemara answers: Rav Menashya bar Taĥlifa is different, as he served the Sages. And it was Rami bar Ĥama who was not precise in his eff orts to check after him to ascertain his actions.

Rami bar Hama was culpable because he was overly zealous, because he was more keen to judge and exclude than to either give the benefit of the doubt or to properly check out his facts.  Zimun is about forming a community, about coming together to magnify and enhance the Majesty of God.  Indeed, only in such a community is this feat achievable.  When we lose sight of the importance of this community, when we seek to highlight our own learning and piety at the expense of others, then we have lost the purpose and telos of our lives.  At that point, death really is where we are headed, whether literally or figuratively.

The psychoanalyst Neville Symington defines death as the inability to effect social change.  This would seem to express perfectly the spirit of this teaching: when we aim at social stasis, at playing up apparent hierarchy, we lose any power to change our world, to enhance the role of the Divine in it, to shed light upon it.  We are dead: emotionally, existentially and spiritually.

So we see progress here, from a simple normative Baraita to a much more critical Amoraic rendering.  And note, very importantly, that we do not say that the earlier teaching takes priority; where there is a clear sense of social change and revised priorities, we follow the later teaching.

And it’s not just me.  Tosafot – the 12th century Talmudic commentators, deeply authoritative in their rulings and interpretations – also conceptualise in this direction.

On 47b they explain that we are not nowadays accustomed to behave in this way, for fear of divisiveness in Israel.  They quote Rabbi Yosi from Chagiga 22a, who says this change of attitude results from the fear that ‘each individual would go off and build an altar of his own’.  If the core of our religion is exclusive then we cannot be surprised when people leave the fold, setting up denominations and practices of their own, separating themselves from the mainstream.

Over in Chagiga, they actually explain our Gemara in even better terms:

Rabbenu Yonah explained that not everyone has the right to take the high ground [litol hashem] and call themselves a Scholar for the purposes of excluding the uneducated from Zimun.  And we do not regard ourselves so highly [machzikim atzmenu] to be a Scholar for this purpose. 

So, Tosafot bring reasons of both social concern and personal piety for the changes to our practice in this area.  Exclusivity is shunned, inclusivity is seen as the way forward.

It was the season of Light, it was the spring of hope.

And yet, those hundred women hang heavy on our conscience.  Tosafot did not move to include them, and neither have many since then.  The Gemara concludes that a child who understands the meaning of the berakhot may acutally join a Zimun, suggesting it’s a matter of education, of understanding.  But again, no mention of the women.  Even PhD in theology does not seem to give them enough understanding of berakhot to merit joining a Zimun, they are simply beyond the pale.  Men and women cannot form a community of worship, this is the sad reality the Talmud presents, and we are right to find it very lacking.

Perhaps the account of women and slaves reveals the true fear, that men banish women because they are afraid of their own sexuality, they project their carnal desire onto the women, laying the blame at their door, and in the process rendering themselves pure and worthy of Divine activity.  When sex is banished from the Zimun it may in some sense be safer, but it is also perhaps lacking in life, in honesty, in love and in the true meaning of community.

It was the season of Darkness, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens ends with the point that:

Some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Are we guilty of only relating to the teachings of the Talmudic by reference to superlatives?  Can we not say that it is a great and deep and rich and wise book, but also one with its flaws?

I believe we must, the spirit of Truth demands it.  Psalm 19 tells us that the Torah of God is perfect; this means that every imperfect textual rendering of it must be revised until it recaptures that aspect of Divine perfection.

Let us not rest until we have done justice to the women suppressed from this text, who are absent not just from this discussion but from so very very many of its discussions, whose voices are barely heard at all.

The Talmud ends the daf with the suggestion that two Scholars who bring new revelation to the world through their intense discussion, who are involved in creative and constructive dialogue, may be able to conduct a Zimun.  How much more so may the dialogue across the genders, may the re-unification of the male and female voice in all of us result in a revelation worthy of Zimun.

May we wrestle with this until we find resolution, and may this year be one of insight and empathy for us all.

Democracy and Halakha: Uneasy bedfellows?? Berakhot 37 and 38

In another example of the fractious relations amongst the early Tannaim, we find Rabbi Akiva getting himself into trouble today, over the correct bracha to say after eating dates:

Once R. Gamaliel and the elders were reclining in an upper chamber in Jericho, and dates  were brought in and they ate, and R. Gamaliel gave permission to R. Akiva to say grace. R. Akiva said quickly the one blessing which includes three [as opposed to the full Grace after Meals, which would have been Rabban Gamliel’s prescription].

Said R. Gamaliel to him: Akiva, how long will you poke your head into quarrels?

He replied: Master, although you say this way and your colleagues say the other way, you have taught us, master, that where an individual joins issue with the majority, the halakha is determined by the majority.

The halakha is determined by the majority.  This is an important principle, not least because it seems to suggest that there is a democratic core in the foundations of halakhic development.

This sounds very promising, we cherish democracy as one of our highest values.  It very much accords with our sensibility to imagine that the halakha shares these values.

But is it really that straightforward?  The halakha is supposed to represent some sort of higher, Divine authority; how can that be squared with a democratic mindset wherein the will of the people, of the sometimes deeply uneducated masses, is the ultimate voice?

It’s a tricky one.

There are problems with democracy, and we would do well not to fall into what Raymond Geuss in History and Illusion in Politics calls the ‘narcissistically adulatory self-description’ (p123) that democracies are vulnerable to.  The mere utterance of the word ‘democratic’ is sometimes thought to sway an argument, and we should not be susceptible to such superficial thinking.  If democracy is great, we need to know why: what is it about the system that makes it so desirable?

The oft cited problem with democracy is that it appears to place all opinions on an equal footing.  Experts are given the same vote as the simple minded, the virtuous are given the same vote as the rogue.  It seems to lack any moral or pragmatic guiding principle; it seems to grant self-determination and self expression domineering priority over what might be right and just.

But no sooner do we state the problem in these terms than we quickly realise that this objection itself raises some thorny problems.  On occasion it might be easy to say who is the expert and who the fool, who the saint and who the sinner.  But can we really be sure to always detect these things, and to be right about them?  And who are the ‘we’ that is doing this detecting?  Haven’t we slipped in, via the backdoor,  some kind of ‘reliable ruling body’ who will take it upon themselves to ensure that the good is always fairly and justly selected?

There is no way around this, we might like to think that some of the time we can easily call upon the experts, but there is no surefire way to ensure that their expertise, their knowledge, does not become a form of oppressive tyranny.

No, we soon arrive at the ultimate defence of democracy, at the sense in which, for all its flaws, it is better than the alternatives.  In a democracy, the will of the people emerges, the truth of their desire becomes manifest.

To watch a democracy unfold is to watch a society organically grow, to see a culture find its roots, to see a people find themselves through the values and aspirations they endorse.

Democracy, as John Dewey point out, embodies the spirit of experimentation, it allows a community to work things out for itself, even if that means sometimes getting things wrong.

We may still find ourselves bothered by the idea that the masses sometimes get whipped up into hysteria, that they may succumb to the temptations of evil, that they may elect a Hitler.  Why are these risks worth taking?  Why should we have so much faith in humanity?

Why indeed.

It is never easy to say why having faith in humanity is a good idea, but we should be clear that when we endorse democracy, especially its liberal varieties, that we are doing precisely that.  We are expressing faith in the ultimate goodness and wisdom of the people, we are saying that no one is better equipped to establish a just and good society than they are.

To value democracy is to make a huge leap of faith.

And, talking slightly differently, it is not just the people that we are expressing faith in, it is goodness itself.  We are saying that the good can only remain hidden and oppressed for so long, that the reign of darkness and indifference must ultimately exhaust itself and burn out.

Getting slightly Hegelian, we are saying that history is a grand narrative from which truth and beauty gradually emerge, that the world of brute actuality actually, over time,  discloses the ideals which were ultimately always driving it.

Democracy should never bore us, it should always be fascinating.  Human nature and human needs are always being re-imagined and reconsidered, and the democratic polity is the stage upon which this drama is played out.

Returning to our Tannaim, Rabban Gamliel, as we know, is the aristocratic who dares to think he knows better than the people.  He thinks they should spend more time praying in the evening and he believes they should more regularly enact the longer form of grace after meals.  There may be some truth to his opinions: in an ideal world, if we were men and women of leisure, these would doubtless be excellent recommendations.

But we do not yet inhabit that Messianic ideal, we are not as free from the worries of the world as we might like to be, and we must with difficulty and regret tailor a more limited framework for our spiritual sustenance.

As a visionary, Rabban Gamliel may have a lot to teach us.  As a legislator, however,  his noble intentions threaten to become tyrannical.  Removed from the soil of the people, from the hierarchy of priorities which they actually can and do endorse, his prescriptions lose sight of that balanced golden mean, they become a source of unnecessary guilt and oppression.

This is all very well, but are we really saying that the Divine will, the Halakha, is expressed and articulated through the will of the people, that God is somehow bound by democracy?

In a word, yes.

As the heavenly voice famously says in closing the story of the Oven of Akhnai, (Bava Metzia 59b), ‘Nitzchuni Banai’, ‘My sons have defeated Me’.  God himself does not have the final word in halakha, the people do.

Everything we said above about democracy should help us to better understand this, we essentially portrayed democracy as a form of ongoing revelation, an everyday continuation of the events that transpired in the Exodus from Egypt and which culminated at Sinai.  In Avot 6:2 we have the idea that a heavenly voice continues to speak forth every day from Sinai; perhaps it is in democracy that it is nowadays making itself heard.

Again, it will stumble and fall, there will be mistakes.  But, importantly, we have faith that it will get there, that something Divine and Beautiful will ultimately be revealed.

Rabbi Akiva was right to ‘stick his head into quarrels’, the humble shepherd was right to challenge the Prince.  In doing so he was reminding us that there is something delicate and alive in the unfolding of halakha, that for the Divine to be truly realised in this world, the voice of the majority must be given its due heed.

This is not to say that we must take the results of democracy uncritically: we must be constantly weighing them up against what we already know of the good and the true, we must be trying to educate and influence from that which moves and inspires us.  But the book of knowledge can never be closed, the written Torah can never prosper without its living, unfolding, oral counterpart.  We may be required to teach, but we must also retain the humility to learn.  As Ben Zoma points out, to be wise is to learn from every man, not just from the experts (Avot 4:1).

May the democratic impulse in halakha act to strengthen our faith in humanity, and may it also help us retain humility in our quest for knowledge, to remind us that truth is always emerging, that it is never just there for the taking.