Is Obligating Women the Answer?

The Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (CJLS) voted recently in favor of a teshuva written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, ruling that in the Conservative movement men and women should be equally obligated in all of the mitzvoth and equally encouraged to perform them.

About the latter part of the ruling, I agree totally. Men and women should be equally encouraged to perform all of the mitzvoth. Even (or perhaps especially, for the sake of affirmative action) those that have been traditionally considered belonging to the opposite gender. For example, both men and women should be encouraged to pray wrapped in a tallit and tefillin, both men and women should be encouraged to immerse in the mikveh, and both men and women should be encouraged to sit in the sukkah, hear the shofar blasts, light Shabbat candles, count the omer, recite the Sh'ma prayer, separate the challah portion from their baking dough, and, of course, study Torah.

A gendered Judaism in a reality that encourages women and men to strive to fulfill themselves and express themselves and contribute to the bettering of the world in whatever ways suit their personal talents and dreams irrespective of gender, is becoming more and more obsolete. Once we accept the fact that gender is a continuum, it becomes obvious that clearly categorizing people according to their sexual anatomy is not only harmful to their psyche and development, but is also not especially productive for society.

Moreover, a gendered Judaism in a world that embraces LGBT Jews is hurtful and irrelevant. In a house with two men, should no one light Shabbat candles? Even the halakhah, classical Jewish Law, says that of course the candles need to be lit. But who does it? Either both partners can light together, or the person who feels more drawn to the performance of the mitzvah that week or that month or that year can do it. So why not apply that same rule to all couples -- straight and gay alike? Why bother divvying up the performance of mitzvoth based on gender at all?

One may argue that the home -- and thus the world -- will run more smoothly if gender roles are clear. That may be true. But it would not run more efficiently or more justly. Does it not make sense for people best suited for tasks or most enthusiastic about their performance to be the ones to perform them, no matter what organs are under their pants? Or perhaps sharing roles instead of divvying up roles may sometimes be a better answer.

For all of the reasons above, I totally support the notion that both men and women should be equally encouraged to perform all of the mitzvoth. But what I do not support is doing so by obligating women -- or men, for that matter. Using the term obligated (vs. exempt) is a mistake, because it perpetuates the same gendered categories from which we, as feminist Jews, should be trying to free ourselves. The idea of obligating some Jews while exempting others belonged to a hierarchical, patriarchal era where not all Jews were perceived to be created equal. I understand that Barmash's approach is to say that today were are all obligated. Today, we have no underclass who are exempt from mitzvoth. We are all "men" in terms of our relationship to mitzvoth today. But is perpetuating the classical male category of Jew what we should be striving for?

Barmash's teshuvah misses a ripe opportunity to re-examine our relationship to mitzvoth in a world that is hopefully breaking down hierarchy and gender roles and heading towards complete egalitarianism. Do we really perform mitzvoth because we feel obligated? Only perhaps in fundamentalist societies do people perform religious ritual and live a religious way of life out of a sense of obligation imposed from an outside power. And even there, it would be difficult to argue that there is no element of personal choice involved. Certainly not in the world of the Conservative movement and liberal Judaism in general. We all have to take that leap of making the commitment, of choosing to live that way of life.

In fact, one could argue that in an open, free and enlightened society, we are all "women" in terms of our relationship to mitzvoth, since in some ways we all feel exempt on some level. Barmash could just as easily, in my opinion, have written a teshuvah exempting all Jews from all mitzvoth instead of obligating them. Yet, that approach would also miss the mark for all of the reasons Barmash explains in her teshuvah; the category of exemption is not only no longer useful, but it creates a feeling of alienation, disconnection, and lack of spiritual value.

In my opinion, every Jew today is a Jew-by-choice. We are no longer living in the shtetl. People can take or leave buying into the idea of mitzvoth. Jews today choose to perform mitzvoth out of a sense of commitment to tradition, community, family, a way of life, a spiritual path, or even simply a desire to repair the world. Even those who do see themselves as obligated, have chosen to construct their world view in that way. There is no way of getting around that step of making a commitment in today's open society. Even the most guilt-ridden Jew has to make that choice -- whether consciously or not.

The truth is that today, neither the term "obligated" nor the term "exempt" applies -- perhaps because today we are not the "women" of the rabbinic period, but we are also not the "men" of the rabbinic period. We are a new class of Jews that is not a class at all, because we are all truly seen as created equally in the image of God. We are not even striving to be the men of the rabbinic period, because now that we have incorporated women's voices into the conversation along with men's, we know better. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and therefore we are taller than the giants themselves were.

Even if one argues that our impetus for performing mitzvoth is a sense of obligation imposed from the outside, is that purely male-created rabbinic notion one we want to pass on to future generations of Jews? Or do we want Jews to own the choice to frame their actions in a Jewish context -- not out of fear or guilt but rather out of a belief in this way of life? Using terms like commitment or choice in relation to mitzvoth encourages this new category of non-gendered-Jews to take personal responsibility for finding meaning in the rituals and actions they call mitzvoth instead of performing them out of peer or communal pressure, habit, comfort or a sense of feeling bound by tradition even if the tradition is no longer relevant or no longer serves any redemptive purpose in the world or in their lives.

The new Jews will be tied down by a religious framework that does not help move the world in a positive progressive direction -- i.e., participate in the project of tikkun olam, repairing our imperfect world -- no more than the new Jews will be tied down by outdated gender roles. The goal of feminism (and thus also feminist Judaism) is not for women to become men, but rather for men to learn from women and women to learn from men, and for us all to invade each other's traditional spheres more and more, until together, with hands and voices joined, we create a better world.

While I understand Barmash's desire to equalize the playing field of mitzvoth, I do not think obligating women is the answer, because I don't think perpetuating the concept of obligation makes sense any more in our current reality or in terms of the kind of world we should be striving to create. If we are truly including women's voices in the fashioning of Judaism, we must break down old exclusively male-created categories and concepts and think of new, more appropriate ones for our time. If Barmash's teshuvah is seen as merely a first step towards breaking down the categories of obligation and exemption all together, I am all for it. But if it is seen as the final desired result of feminist Judaism, it misses the egalitarian boat.


Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is the rabbinic director of Shmaya: A Ritual and Educational Mikveh on Kibbutz Hannaton, where she lives with her husband and seven children. Her first memoir, Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (JFL Press, 2000) was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Award, and her second memoir, Chanah's Voice: A rabbi wrestles with gender, commandment, and the women's rituals of baking, bathing, and brightening, was just released by Ben Yehudah Press. It is available on in both print and Kindle editions.