Jewish literature cannot make up its mind about women. On the one hand there is lyrical poetry “A woman of worth who can find? Her price is far above rubies”. On the other there are derogatory statements about woman’s nature that suggest she is too soft and even too irrational to be entrusted with responsibilities.
Such statements, however, are not based on scientific research. They are perceptions from a particular age and society, and perceptions can change. Today, when women and men are both highly educated, sophisticated and competent, the old stereotypes are no longer automatically authoritative.
In Jewish life the position of women in religion and society is undergoing serious re-appraisal. But before addressing the question of where and in what way women can play a satisfying role, a plea: whatever happens in the public arena, do not let the home and family suffer. The stability, serenity and sanctity of Jewish home life are the basis of Jewish identity, commitment and continuity. Nothing must be allowed to weaken or undermine them.
Historically there have always been women in Jewish public life, in spite of some people’s halachic reservations. Today there is a growing female presence in leadership positions, including synagogue boards and executives. Some ask about women cantors: that’s a major problem and we have to accept that it will not be possible. Women rabbis? With that title and all it implies, again there is a problem. But spiritual leadership takes many forms. We have, and will have more, women Torah scholars, teachers, pastors and exemplars, whatever the title that will eventually be settled on for them.
Individual expressions of women’s spirituality? No longer can anyone brush the subject aside and say, “That’s just for men!” There is much halachic research going on, frequently spearheaded by women scholars themselves. The result? Women saying Kaddish, touching or carrying the Torah, reading the M’gillah, and much more. But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s warning needs to be heeded. If the motivation is militancy or making a statement, it is unwise, undignified and unallowable to perform these rituals. They have to be done out of quiet, genuine piety and love of God, without parades, petitions or performances.
If you are satisfied as things are, without any change, God bless you, but it’s a pity. You are losing an opportunity to broaden and deepen your Jewish identity and personal spiritual life. Everyone’s religious pilgrimage must be a dynamic, living striving and search. But on the road, don’t look only for new things. Take more seriously what has always been there - Shabbat lights, kashrut, mikvah. Don’t forget the basic Jewish ethic of tzni’ut - modesty in appearance, apparel and attitude. Above all, rededicate yourself to prayer, the way to find your soul, and Torah study, the way to discover your mind and heritage.
As time goes on, the old, as Rav Kook said, will be renewed: the new will be sanctified. Some areas will become more developed, especially life-cycle events such as Simchat Bat and Bat-Mitzvah. Are they a reform? No, an innovation, and the rabbis said, “there is no bet midrash without chiddush, something new”.
The issue is on the Jewish agenda and will not go away. We are far from certain yet of all the answers. But the search has a dignity, an urgency and an excitement; may God bless all our efforts.