Davening Among the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes – by Rabbi Zev Farber

Several months ago, a guest speaker visited our synagogue for a talk on current events in the Middle East. I enjoyed the talk and after services I asked my wife what she thought. She responded: “Did you notice that the speaker never once turned his face towards the women’s section? He had his face turned away from us the entire time, as if we weren’t even there.”

I had to admit that I had not noticed this. Why didn’t this man, a modern person speaking about Israel, turn towards the women? He was a secular Jew, so it could not have been due to “extreme piety” of the ignoring-women variety. I am sure that there is no other speaking venue where he would distinguish between men and women in this way.

Perhaps the placement of the podium in the room had something to do with it. Like most (not all) Orthodox shuls, our podium is situated in the men’s section, so naturally, the speaker faced the men. A slight angling of the body is all it would have taken for the speaker to face the women as well, but my guess is that he absorbed the subconscious message of the building’s logistics: “The people in the main section—the one opposite the podium—are the important ones. Face them.”

Watching the Flintstones with my children one day, it struck me that our synagogues have an uncanny resemblance to lodge no. 26 of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, where Fred and Barney go to have a men’s night out. I say this in jest, but it is illustrative. The men of the LOWB wear a special garb, they have a special code and gestures which they use, and there are no women. Although our synagogues are a step advanced from the Stone Age lodge—we let our women watch—the resemblances are worth noting; only the men have the special garb, only the men know the secret handshake, and when the Grand Poobah speaks, his podium faces only men.

To be fair, the synagogue I attend is quite modern and sensitive to women’s issues, and our rabbi is overwhelmingly so. In addition, the architectural plans for the new building include a fifty-fifty split with a podium in the middle. However, I think the anecdote is illustrative of the pernicious message which is unconsciously and unintentionally being sent to the women and girls in our community: “You are not really here.”

Of course, the placement of the podium is only one way—albeit an obvious one—that Orthodox synagogues communicate to their participants that women are not really in the room. This message is also communicated by access to the holiest and most central feature of the synagogue, the Torah scroll, which is removed from the ark, inevitably by a man, during Shabbat morning services. The Torah is then handed to the man leading the services and carried around so everybody can touch it and kiss it… well, not everybody.

It is true that in some Orthodox synagogues the Torah is either passed to a woman to carry through the women’s section or is carried through the women’s section by the man leading the services. However, in most Orthodox synagogues the Torah is carried only through the men’s section; the message being that access to the Torah is only for participants in the prayer services, not for onlookers. Some synagogues that are sensitive to the problem decide on the awkward solution of carrying the Torah slowly near the meitza (barrier). The women can then scramble to the meitza and vie for access in Darwinian fashion.

Traditional garb is another way Orthodox synagogues send the message that the men are the real participants. Men’s ritual accoutrements, special prayer shawls around their shoulders or over their heads, and leather straps and boxes on their heads and arms, are significant ritually and spiritually. Needless to say, the average Orthodox woman does not wear tzitzit or t’fillin and has no ritual equivalent of her own.

Other ways the second-class position of women in the synagogue is communicated are even more complex, as they appear hardwired into the halakhic system and changing or tinkering with them would be more than a little problematic for the halakhically observant.

Firstly, for the prayer service to start, or at least for certain special prayers to be said, there needs to be a minyan (a prayer quorum) of ten men; women do not count. Without ten men services cannot be held, but services can run from beginning to end without even one woman present. This, of course, is in compliance with the halakhic rulings found in the Talmud; nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that women generally show up late, if at all.

Secondly, women do not lead anything; not just the special minyan prayers (devarim she-be-qedusha) but activities that are not minyan-related at all, such as misheberakhs for the US government or the State of Israel, opening the ark to take out the Torah, or reciting birkot ha-shaar.

Modern Orthodoxy is in a bind when it comes to women in the synagogue. In a world where gender roles are constantly shifting, it becomes rather difficult for a religious group that is both modern and Orthodox to navigate the many tensions that exist between traditional practices and modern egalitarian values. Sometimes these tensions express themselves around halakhic issues: women leading devarim she-be-qedusha, wearing t’fillin, counting for a minyan, or participating in the Torah-reading ceremony. Other times the issues appear more sociological: bringing the Torah through the women’s section, women holding or carrying the Torah, placement of the podium, or women speaking from the podium.

The halakhic issues require textual analysis and remain extremely divisive and I am not suggesting here that Orthodox communities should make radical breaks with halakha. Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakha and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.

In my opinion, wherever one falls out on the halakhic issues—and the spectrum is wide—none of our synagogues really want to be sending the message that women are only spectators. Therefore, I strongly suggest that we take a close look at the messages the structure and culture of our synagogues are sending to women. If the overwhelming message is LOWB-like, what changes can be made, commensurate with the halakhic views of the rabbi and the culture of the institution, to make women feel like they are part of the services and not just watching? Can the podium be placed more centrally? Can the Torah be brought to the women’s side? Can a woman carry it? Can she hold it after g’lilah? Is the meḥitza too tall or difficult to see through? Is there anything at all that a woman can lead or recite out loud during services so that a woman’s voice can be heard as part of the prayer experience?

It is my hope that every synagogue will take this message to heart and think constructively about how to create an Orthodox synagogue experience loyal to halakha and welcoming of women; where women feel like participants instead of spectators. In her famous essay, “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question,” Cynthia Ozick wrote: “My own synagogue is the only place in the world where I am not named ‘Jew’.” I am sure that no Modern Orthodox rabbi or synagogue wants to send this message, and yet unconsciously—but systemically—we do. For the sake of our women, our girls and the health of our communities, the message needs to change.

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23 Responses to Davening Among the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes – by Rabbi Zev Farber

  1. Frume Sarah says:

    A fantastic analogy. And a really unexpected and well-stated position coming from one who is in the MO world. I hope your message is heard.

  2. Raised orthodox says:

    All of those, and a few other reason are why I have rejected orthodoxy (modern and not-so-modern) for reform/secularism. It’s a boy’s club and women are good for two things: having babies and keeping house.

  3. daveavraham says:

    Great post, Rabbi Farber. I’ve been trying to convince members of my synagogue that women should be invited to read Megillot (except Esther, for now) for the kahal. I’ve found one of the biggest obstacle to be that the committee that makes these decisions is entirely made up of men and, therefore, the issue seemingly takes less precedence than ‘who is getting an aliyah on Shabbat’.

    What are your thoughts on women reading Megillot for the kahal?

  4. EBF says:

    Hello! Nice of you to wake up to what has been so obvious for years and welcome to my world. FFB, member of a Young Israel, but enjoying more and more the occasional visits to egalitarian or partnership minyanim where I’ve had aliyot and other honors. Just the ability to sit next to my sons and husband in shul, to actually see the Torah read without the barrier of a mechtiza, all produce an amazing feeling of being accepted and seen as part of the congregation. I don’t think most men have a clue of what it feels like to be “not seen,” and barely “heard.” Socially, I really enjoy my community, but when I sit in shul I feel like I’m living in the 19th century — here, women who are honored for their participation in sisterhood, etc. and look on while their husband’s are named Chatan Torah in their place. And THE WOMEN think this is fine and good, standing in their place and clapping.

  5. Shoshana says:

    For whatever it is worth: in our Chabad shul the bimah is right in the middle, the Rabbi addresses both men and women, and the hakafah is held both in the men’s side and in the women’s side.

  6. balinsky1 says:

    http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2012/05/10/there-are-places-i-remember/

    An Orthodox rabbinic colleague Rabbi Zev Farber recently posted on Morethodoxy a piece on the experience of place women have in Orthodox synagogues. He concludes his post with: “Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakhah and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.”

    In response to this, I posted a comment to him “While I share the sentiments here, I am wondering why Rabbi Farber has written what is essentially a thirty or forty year old dated post, including the Flintstone and Ozick references. My fifty two year old wife would vigorously nod in agreement and my age seventeen and twenty seven daughters’ eyes would glaze over and say deal with it”. (My twenty four year old is a less frequent synagogue attendee, but the one she attends less frequently would be Orthodox.)

    It is interesting where we draw our lines in the sand. My daughters would never put up with being denied equal access to Jewish text, but are more at peace with ritual inequality or difference. They do not harbor a secret desire to put on tefillen. As my daughter put it “Why would I? Nobody in my community does”.

    I am left to wonder why this is the case. What changed between my wife’s generation and my daughters’? I think part of the answer is that my daughters are the beneficiaries of those women and men who came before them and fought the battles, created the learning environments and opened up the doors of the Beit Midrash. What is striking is that the ritual practices per se are not the issue. The fact that their voices can now be heard appears to be critical. They are not silent but engaged participants in the debates of Jewish life. If they are not bothered by not being able to read Torah, it is because their voices can still be heard in the Beit Midrash actively engaging our sacred texts.

    In a different vein, but I think not unrelated, I see a liberal approach to social issues. On the one hand they are committed to Taharat Hamishpacha (family purity laws) and there was no question my daughter would cover her hair after her wedding. However my sense is that on issues confronting their gay friends, my daughters simply want their friends to be happy in whatever relationship they are in.

    In acquiring a voice and becoming active learners, these young Orthodox women are at peace with their place in the synagogue. They love the best of the Orthodox community, but they retain their moral voice. As committed to halakhah as they are, they retain their sovereign self.

  7. JDE says:

    @balinsky1: “What changed between my wife’s generation and my daughters’? I think part of the answer is that my daughters are the beneficiaries of those women and men who came before them and fought the battles, created the learning environments and opened up the doors of the Beit Midrash.”

    I think, Rabbi, that a more precise answer would be that your daughters’ attitude – the attitude of their entire generation (“Nobody in my community does”) – reflects the rightward move of Modern Orthodoxy as a result of half a century of Haredi influence and intimidation.

  8. zevfarber says:

    As a supplement, here is my teenage daughter Eden’s article on the same subject from her perspective. (Her article was actually written first, but appeared a day afterwards).

    http://www.freshinkforteens.com/articles/through-looking-glass-mechitza

    • JDE says:

      Excellent. She nailed it: “… I think about how Modern Orthodoxy is tipping its own scale. The movement is losing its modernity to satisfy the traditions of others… “. It’s encouraging that she cares (and that she apparently understands the nature of the problem), but discouraging that this is what’s being presented to her. This is the result of more than five decades of a subculture glancing furtively backward over its collective shoulder, longing for Haredi approval (an approval we both know will never be given).

      I don’t want to discourage either you or her (although not observant – not a believer at all, actually – I’m an admirer of your teacher, Rabbi Weiss), but unfortunately, the prognosis would appear to be grim. I maintain that apart from the rare fringe group (such as the HIR/YCT community), Modern Orthodoxy no longer exists in any meaningful sense. What you now have, for the most part, is Haredism and Haredism Lite.

  9. Rabbi Farber,

    Perhaps in YOUR synagogue you conduct yourselves like the Flintstones, but please don’t smear the good name of other God-fearing Jews who have a very clear understanding of the difference between the sanctity of the Mikdash M’at and and a silly children’s cartoon show. Perhaps you have been spending too much time watching cartoons and it has sub-consciously worked its way into your behavior in the synagogue. Maybe the solution is to quit spending so much time in front the TV set and more time saying tehilim. After all, imagine the scandal if you got up front of your congregation to give a sermon and you impulsively blurted out, “Eh, What’s up Doc?”

    • daveavraham says:

      Rabbi Averick –

      I hope you are well. I have no interest in defending Rabbi Farber, as I believe he can fend for himself. But, simply as a reader of this blog, I’d be interested to hear your substantive responses to his post. You’re a learned man and experienced Rabbi. As someone interested in both sides of the debate, it’s difficult for me to understand the “other side” to blog posts such as these when responses such as yours are written as ad hominem attacks instead of substantive critiques. Having just emerged from Lag B’Omer, it would be wonderful to see Talmidei Chachamim “nohagim kavod ze ba-zeh.” For many of us who have, perhaps (and, perhaps prematurely) already “made up our mind” on certain ‘hot-button issues,’ it is this “comments” section that exposes us to new ideas that may force us to reassess our positions. Convince us with the power of ideas! (I know you have not “given up hope” on readers of this blog–with your experience in Kiruv, this certainly is not your attitude.)

      There may be those who disagree, but personally I’d prefer to see your fire and passion used toward substance instead of rhetoric.

      Shabbat Shalom to you and your family.

      Sincerely,
      David Avraham
      Skokie, IL

  10. David,

    What I wrote reflects exactly what I think of the “substance” of Rabbi Farber’s post. The Feminism that emerged in the 60′s and 70′s in this country has wreaked havoc on American society. It has destroyed the nuclear family as the center of our society and is responsible for rampant promiscuity and the murders of millions of unborn children.
    Fealty to this destructive feminist ideology is the underlying dynamic of Rabbi Farber’s article. Feminism has no place in torah. Please see my Algemeiner.com article on the subject:

    http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/11/20/the-four-actually-five-legacies-of-feminism/

    I meant exactly what I said. If Rabbi Farber feels that the women in his synagogue are mistreated, then he should do something about it. That does not mean he should be motzi laaz on other Jews because he feels guilty that his wife was offended by a speaker with poor training in public speaking. If the speaker was looking straight ahead, I wonder if the people on the right side of the room were also offended that he wasnt looking at them.

    If you would like to continue this discussion, David, I will be happy to do it privately. Please email me at moe.david@hotmail.com

    • Arlene Appelrouth says:

      I am horrified by your words Specifically: The Feminism that emerged in the 60′s and 70′s in this country has wreaked havoc on American society. It has destroyed the nuclear family as the center of our society and is responsible for rampant promiscuity and the murders of millions of unborn children.
      As a woman who came of age during the 60s and supported the rights of women to have the same opportunities as men, I cheered the women’s movement which opened the doors for women to fully participate in their careers, and have the opportunities to use their education to that end.
      A society which demands or expects women to live according to outdated sexual stereotypes is what is doomed.
      When I graduated from college and was already an experienced journalist, I was faced with a culture that did not offer options for women who desired both professional success while also pursuing the traditional roles of wife and mother.
      I was a stay at home mother, not by choice, but because there was no infrastructure to help me raise my children and also work in my profession. I free-lanced when I could and kept my skills current in volunteer positions.
      Today, my 39-year-old daughter has it all. She is married,works as an attorney, and also has two well adjusted pre-schoolers. She lives in a suburb of Washingon, DC, filled with dual career couples, whose nuclear families are whole. All of this never would have been possible, without the feminist movement.
      The U.S. Constitution guarantees rights to women as well as men. Nuclear families are created by both women and men Both sexes are charged with the responsibility of maintaining healthy, nuclear families.
      How dare you blame feminism for deleterious realities that are obviously created by all the members of our culture?

      • Paul says:

        The following is what I believe to be overwhelmingly true, but certainly there are some exceptions.

        The fact is that feminism has hurt our society more than it has helped it. Men and women generally have different strengths and when the woman is doing the man’s job and the man is doing the woman’s job, the result is an inefficient society. It would be like playing Albert Pujols at Shortstop. It is inefficient, and has contributed to the fact that the western world isn’t able to sustain itself procreatively. Everyone is too busy being inefficient, and have no time to have more than two kids (1.9).

        Besides, I think women have no place in men’s locker rooms…but some of you have given up common sense for political correctness.

        So let me see if I get this straight….the Jewish woman doesn’t count despite the fact that it is the Jewish woman that determines the religion of the child. How is that sexist?

        A married man has as many stringencies in dealing with the opposite sex as his wife in terms of no touching, being alone in a room, etc…

        Chazal say a man should live according to his means but honor his wife in a manner above his means….

        It is a man’s duty to please his wife….

        Frankly, I think Torah Judaism has it right, and you guys on the left are blinded by your silly political correctness.

        I acknowledge that to whatever extent it is the man’s failure to appropriately value the traditional woman’s role in our society (most importantly within the sphere of Torah Judaism) that has caused this, then surely we (men) have what to be sorry for. However, it does not justify feminism as the proper Torah hashkafic response.

        Paul Stein

  11. Perhaps you would feel more comfortable joining the Union for Traditional Judaism? It seems you don’t very much like Torah values that disagree with your liberal ones.

    • JDE says:

      Garnel, that’s a foolish statement. Did you actually read Rabbi Farber’s article? He hasn’t said anything that runs counter to the dictates of Orthodoxy (not that it would trouble me if he did); in fact he was very clear:

      It is my hope that every synagogue will take this message to heart and think constructively about how to create an Orthodox synagogue experience loyal to halakha and welcoming of women.

      You criticize Haredim as much as the next fellow, but when someone comes out with an opinion that’s slightly to the Left of your particular niche, your knee-jerk reaction is “Leave, then!”?

      Lately, you’ve been taking pot shots at people left and right, myself included. I don’t know what’s going on in your life that’s making you this snarky, but this young man doesn’t deserve it.

      • JDE, let me point out that comparing shul to a “boys club” in a cartoon show is a foolish statement. Perhaps I was just responding in kind?
        Now let me explain something: egalitarianism is a huge feature of the Reformative community. Why? Well, having eliminated any Jewishness and necessary mitzvah observance outside of the temple/synagogue either officially (Reform) or through apathy and lack of education (Conservative) all they have left is public worship and yes, when seen in isolation the temple/synagogue is very much a boys’ club when run al pi halacha. The same people who see little to no value in Shabbos (a home based mitzvah), kashrus (a home based mitzvah) and taharas mishpacha (a home base mitzvah), the three fundamental pillars of Jewish observance, then turn around and announce “But we’re excluding women from participation in Jewish life!”
        And this article runs right along with position.
        For people living Jewish lives in which the home and family are the centre of their observance there is little angst over the lack of participation of women in shul. Women are too busy running the far more critical and important areas of Jewish worship.

      • JDE says:

        And this article runs right along with position.

        No, it doesn’t. It isn’t even applicable. He said something that seems (to you) to be reminiscent of something others in other denominations have said – so you tell him to leave? You’ve been caught doing this before. You aren’t the arbiter of who is and isn’t frum. You are not the guardian at the gate.

        For people living Jewish lives in which the home and family are the centre of their observance there is little angst over the lack of participation of women in shul.

        Yeah – you really have no idea as to what’s going on in Orthodoxy outside of your isolated bubble. You just feel the need to lash out at anything you perceive as a threat. You’ve always done it, but lately you’ve been out of control.

        As I’ve told you repeatedly – sometimes you talk sense, and sometimes the things you say are so ridiculous and inappropriate that they aren’t even worth responding to. Shmarya (among others) has let you get away with it for a long time, but this is the reason that even he finally snapped at you a couple of weeks ago.

        Leave this guy alone. He’s said nothing wrong and your criticism isn’t even accurate (to say nothing of unwarranted). You don’t like what he has to say? Don’t read it – and if you do read it, and you disagree, then tell him the reason like a grown-up, instead of, “That’s Reform talk! Get out!”

        He and his colleagues are trying to accomplish something here. They’re trying to create a movement to rescue Orthodoxy from the people who’ve spent the past half-century driving it into the ground, people whom you – when the mood strikes you – also claim to dislike. They don’t need a troll. If anything, you should be on their side.

  12. Ah, of course. The J stands for Jeff. Now I get it.
    1) I didn’t tell him to leave Orthodoxy. I asked if perhaps he was thinking along those lines but at no point did I say “Get out”.
    2) I am not the guardian of the gate but I am entitled to have an opinion on where that gate should be. As you never seem to get, once you put a post up on a blog it’s free for the world to comment on. Morethodoxy is a moderated blog. If Rabbi Farber doesn’t feel my comments are appropriate he is within in rights to simply not publish them.
    3) Shmarya snaps at everyone eventually. I see it as a badge of honour, not a rebuke.
    4) Leave this guy alone? How am I harassing him? I posted one comment on his piece which he was fully at liberty to reject if he so choose. If anything, it’s you that’s doing the harassing by accusing me of things I haven’t done and attacking my character.

  13. [...] for men only should be clear to any objective observer. I have written about this previously, in “Davening Among the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.” Some Orthodox women have also written about their experience in shul and the pain it causes [...]

  14. […] statements in Tanach and Chazal and disparaging our liturgy here and here; to advocating for feminization of the synagogue and tefillah; to having women serve as chazzan for male-female services here and here; to ordaining women; to […]

  15. […] 1. The ordination of women, consistent adoption of feminist values and beliefs, the denial of the innate differences between genders and mockery of traditional rabbinic standards regarding the role of women. […]

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