Limmud 2004: It's a Woman's World?

Panel: Shulamit Reinharz, Sybil Sheridan, Diana Villa, Avril Mailer and Chair: Viva Hammer.

Report by Avril Mailer:

What are the issues facing Jewish women today? The role that women may play has the power to divide Jewish communities like no other: does the Torah have a positive message for women or does it condemn them to second-class status? And what effect does that have on how Jewish women are treated or mistreated in the modern day? Rabbis, educators, and community workers will debate these important issues.

JWN was invited by the organisers at Limmud this year to take part in a panel of women discussing issues of concern to Jewish women. I accepted the challenge on behalf of JWN, feeling honoured that the Network is recognised by Limmud as representing women's voices in this way.

The other participants were Rabbi Sybil Sheridan from the UK, Shulamit Reinharz from the Woman's Studies Research centre at Brandeis in the US, and Rabbi Diana Villa of the Centre for Women in Jewish Law, Schechter Institute in Israel. The chair was Viva Hammer, active in many areas of Jewish communal life in the USA.

I started off by looking at the statement in the title of this session:

The role that women may play has the power to divide Jewish communities like no other”, and went on to suggest that this statement had been framed as a deliberately provocative challenge to illustrate a particular attitude, by no means exclusive to Jewish communities. I asked: “What is this power- this force women have to split communities? This kind of statement is a way of putting the onus on women to maintain harmony and avoid causing provocation, even at a cost to themselves.”

I am committed to bridging the divisions in the community and based on my experience within the Jewish Women's Network, I believe that far from being the cause of splits, women have a great capacity for bridging divisions.

I went on to highlight some of the areas where we have succeeded:-

11 years ago a group of women looked around and saw a community riven by schisms, mainly ignorant of each other, with little real communication between them. Against this background these women the founder of the JWN found among women of diverse affiliations a groundswell of dissatisfaction with their status, Beyond those women, JWN found women who identified as Jewish but who had never found shelter under any communal umbrella. We – by this time I had joined JWN - found the whole concept of who is the community ripe for re-evaluation. So started a process of learning, dialogue and action by Jewish women across the spectrum to improve their status. We picked up on some of the issues raised in the Women in the Jewish Community report of 1994.

To illustrate the effect of the opening statement, I described how the introduction of women vice-chairs in the United Synagogues in 2000 was perceived; on the one hand by a United Synagogue Rabbi, who warned that this move, made as he put it just to placate the vocal few - would alienate the ultra observant who would flee to the shtiebels.

I wrote to the JC at this time pointing out that JWN feedback sheets at our events showed that many women had left Orthodoxy because of views such as his. So you see where the split is happening is in the eye of the beholder!

I went on to outline my correspondence with another Rabbi [published in detail in our newsletter in May 2001], to illustrate the contrasting viewpoints about how people of differing outlooks could work together:

The Rabbi couldn't visualise how women from divergent political and religious affiliations could work together in the Women of the Wall campaign to gain access to prayer at the Kotel.

He could accept that they could work together only up to a point - to gain access to worship at the wall - but once it got to determining what form the worship should take - uh uh - religious women would want to worship as a spiritual experience, Meretz women would stress human rights and want the wall to be available to Christian and Muslim women. So chaos would ensue!

But- guess what- as I told the Limmud audience, this was a classic case of the bumble bee who flies when according to the laws of aerodynamics this is theoretically impossible. The women were already peaceably praying together and continue to do so until this day - at Robinson's arch - but that's another story.

I gave the examples of our success in the UK - our Bereavement Booklet – responding to one of the most heartfelt needs recorded in the Women in the Jewish community report of 1994. This book was produced by women across the spectrum, is widely used and we have had strong feedback that it is deeply appreciated by women across the spectrum.

Following on from this, JWN produced the JWN Workshop Guide, offering women of differing views and affiliations a way to dialogue and work together effectively.

I concluded that 10 years on, we still have to keep up awareness by continually questioning: who is the community?

At the 10 year celebration of the publication of the Report, it was mentioned that the Stanmore women's tefillah group is still going strong - but still banished from shul premises and still not permitted to leyn from a torah scroll. It is generally accepted by now that this is not because of halacha but because of the principle of kibud hatzibur. - preserving the honour of the community – and we ask: whose honour? And who is the community? Certainly not the honour of the banished women, or those of the men in the community who support them.

The mindset is still there – in the JC last week in an article on Chanuka, Rabbi Sacks wrote that the Jews had the first system of universal compulsory education in the first century C.E. The fact that he could use the word “universal” without being alert to the fact that this must have excluded women means we still have work to do in educating the communal consciousness.

Meanwhile back at the shul, - a women vice chair was elected the following year, and the community didn't fall apart.

But we need to ensure that we continue to make heard the voices, not only of the “vocal few” but of all Jewish women in our greater community, including secular women, disabled women, lesbians and single parents.