Sometimes people say to Orthodox types, on my behalf:

What do you MEAN a woman can't be a scribe? The Talmud says women, slaves, heretics and so on can't be scribes? How can you say a woman is like a slave or a heretic? That's DISGUSTING!

To which I say:

They're right. Concerning writing Torahs, a woman is in the same class as the heretic, etc. If you look at the source, you'll see that all the people in that list have the mitzvah of tefillin in common - either they aren't obligated in the mitzvah, or they're not scrupulous about performing it, or they've publicly rejected mitzvot. Obligation is a crucial component of ritual structure; someone who is not obligated in a mitzvah cannot perform the mitzvah on behalf of others, which is why non-Jews cannot participate in services, for example. Therefore, saying a woman can't be a scribe is absolutely 100% correct.

Gittin 45b is part of the Talmud, which is part of rabbinic Judaism, as are sifrei Torah. Orthodoxy and I share the expectation that if rabbinic Judaism does something, we don't throw it aside lightly. Otherwise why bother writing Torahs at all?

Rabbinic Judaism has its own built-in mechanisms for recognising societal change, so even the most entrenched rulings may be altered if there is an overwhelming moral imperative (rejecting slavery, for example). Woven into the fabric of rabbinic Judaism are certain assumptions about the role women play in society vis-a-vis men, in particular concerning the nature of women's obligation in mitzvot from which they have traditionally been exempt. Where non-egalitarian Orthodoxy (i.e. that segment of Orthodoxy which isn't troubled by the limitations on women's roles, as opposed to egalitarian Orthodoxy, which is) and I differ is that I and my community think that there is an overwhelming moral imperative to alter those assumptions in a fundamental way. My community chooses to say that we should view women as equal to men, and that women should have the same obligations (and hence the same ritual capabilities) as men. Non-egalitarian Orthodoxy does not.

In fact, their choosing to maintain traditional gender roles is probably more in line with existing trends in the secular world - certainly in the USA women's and men's roles are still definitely distinct; look at almost all advertising, as well as expectations re careers, childrearing, care of elderly parents, etc. When a community chooses to maintain gender roles in ritual, it is absolutely reasonable for them to maintain that women do not write sifrei Torah. Challenging this is asking them to alter something pretty fundamental to their culture and way of life - it is asking them to accept an absolutely foreign premise, rather similar to how you would feel if someone insisted you accept Christianity. They are entitled to their view, just as you and I are entitled to ours.

The best thing we can do is build a sustainable, committed Judaism which incorporates egalitarianism into the existing matrix. For that we need mutual respect, self-respect, and self-confidence. We gain authenticity not through others but through ourselves.


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February 2017

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