Women In Minyan Services In Conservative Judaism
A woman participated in the opening of the Minyan service at the Conservative Jewish synagogue on that Friday evening. There were several other women in the congregation. Based on my research prior to my visit, I knew that a Minyan service needed 10 males present in order to begin; I was curious to know if I counted toward that quota. Therefore, I was interested to know what the standard was and how it had changed. The research revealed that while this appeared to be normal now to that Jewish congregation, many generations before never had any women participating in the service, let alone present. Although it took some time, women’s roles in synagogues today are different from 100 years ago. Change within Judaism as a whole lead to branches of Judaism, including Conservative Judaism. In today’s Conservative synagogues in America, the way women are allowed to participate, learn, and lead look quite different than the Orthodox synagogues.
Before true progress can be evaluated, it is very important to understand what Orthodox Jewish services looked, and mostly still look, like. While women’s rights as a whole, inside and outside of the service, have progressed mightily over the past years, I will be focusing mainly on their rights and roles within the services and ceremonies, such as the minyan. Traditionally, women’s religious activity was based within the home. They were in charge of making sure that the family observed holidays and laws regarding purity. The women were only required to obey negative commands, such as not killing, and only the men had to obey the time-bound laws. A time-bound law is something that has to be done at a specific time, such as a prayer service. Therefore, women could not pray in services, or participate in other time bound laws, because it is assumed the women would be busy with household duties and not even present in the service. If women did attend, they worshipped separately from the men. Sometimes they were even separated with a divide, or balcony because it was thought they would be too distracting for the men.
Because some rabbis described this traditional treatment of women as “degrading” and even “barbaric,” it is only logically to assume that change would occur. Fortunately, as time and society progressed, Judaism progressed as well. These changes began in the 19th century when Wester European Jews were set free and given citizenship. This, following the 18th century Enlightenment which had a key focus in equality, began to create rumbles within the religious community about the differences between women and men and why these existed. Although it took some time to see the fruits of their efforts, many people banded together in order to reform Judaism and create what is now known as Reformed Judaism.
Conservative Judaism started in America in 1887 as a response to the lack of change in Orthodox Judaism and the rapid change in Reformed Judaism. This movement was created to “conserve Jewish tradition and at the same time to respond to the challenges of modernity.” They wanted to stay as traditional as possible and only change if “absolutely necessary” in order to keep up with modern changes. Therefore, changes and progress within Judaism, especially Reformed Judaism, are important to note because if these acts align with Conservative Judaism’s platform, they are slowly filtrated in.
Around 1845, serious efforts started being made toward equality. It was in 1845 at a Reform conference that Sage Rabbenu Gershom, who had already made steps towards rights for Jewish women outside the synagogue, teamed up with Rabbi David Einhorn. They introduced the topic of women’s rights and were told to create a presentation for the 1846 conference. This presentation included six key aspects. The ones pertaining to the service are as follows: performing religious acts dependent on time, participation in prayer services and allowance to count towards quote, change to the religious majority age for male and female, and removal of controversial phrasing, which appeared sexist, in the morning prayer. While this may be the earliest documentation of effort towards equality, the presentation was not discussed due of lack of time, but it did lead to conversation.
While ideas for efforts were documented early, it took much longer to put them into action. A big step towards equality in Judaism took place in 1922 with the first bat mitzvah. Until this point, only bar mitzvahs existed. These were coming of age ceremonies for boys when they turned thirteen. Although a girl turning twelve marked her coming of age, there was not a ceremonial aspect. This now meant that girls could also read from the Torah. The first bar mitzvah was thrown in 1922 by Mordecai M. Kaplan for his daughter. While it did not have the great extravagance that the bar mitzvahs did, it set a precedent. Kaplan was an obvious trend setter as the bat mitzvah had been introduced to almost all Conservative and Reform synagogues by the 1960s. A couple of decades after the bat mitzvah was introduced, mixed seating was under discussion. As of the 1950s, some Conservative congregations had introduced mixed seating, but not all. This does not mean that the movement was not in favor of mixed seating, but the movement wanted each synagogue to make an individualized decision on mixed seating. Based on one researcher’s article on her observations and findings of four New York synagogues, it appears that it was not a given that every congregation had mixed seating, even in 2005. However, even though they were now allowed to be present in the service, they still did not have the opportunity to be active in the service.
There is speculation that change within America as a society helped spur bigger changes within Judaism. Feminism came along with the Civil Rights Movement and gave women away to fight outside religious bounds as well. Therefore, many feminist leaders actually were Jewish. They used their platforms to speak about inequality in the church. Betty Freidan used her platform to continue to push some of the ideas that Einhorn attempted to tackle. In 1970, while speaking at the Women’s Strike for Equality, she said, “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.” In the same year she said this, the United States started to make some more steps toward equality. The Equal Pay Act passed and then the following year the Civil Rights Act, which did not allow for discrimination for a job based on sex, was passed. The change outside of the church continued to push women to call for change within the church.
The struggle for active roles may have taken the most time to resolve. This can be seen as it was not until the 1970s that some women became rabbis; it took even longer for this change to affect Conservative synagogues. These women were not allowed hold the position of rabbi until 1983. This is when the decision to allow women into the rabbinical program at the Seminary was made. It then took until 1990 for women to be admitted into the Cantor assembly. These were big changes that women had been working towards for years. Women could finally sit, read the Torah, be celebrated at coming of age, and lead like the men had been doing.
However, these changes did not satisfy women; they still strived for equality in every aspect of Judaism, including dress. As a result, they made a push towards equal dress in the services. Traditionally, men wore multiple items in a synagogue service: “a yarmulke, a head covering, and a tallit, a prayer shawl.” Women then started to wear yarmulkes and tallits, some of which were multi colored. The tallit is significant for many reasons. The tied fringes are said to create connection and sacredness. When these fringes are cut, it shows “unraveling of life and the reality of death.” They are also in close connection to rite of passage ceremonies. After Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, males and females receive these to show that each one is now accountable for a direct relationship with God. They are now seen as mature in the synagogue and count toward the quota for the minyan.
Without the effort that people such as Rabbi David Einhorn and Mordecai Kaplan, I would not have been able to attend that Minyan service. In Orthodox Judaism, I would most likely not have been allowed in the ceremony either. In Reformed Judaism, it appears I would have been able to do whatever I wanted. However, in this Conservative service I was able to attend and female members were allowed direct participation. In some congregations, I may have worshipped with a female rabbi and/or cantor. While more than likely the men and women fighting for change within the movement wanted change in equality faster and easier, there efforts were rewarded in the long term as women can now attended, lead, learn, and dress equally in most Conservative synagogues.
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