When I wrote about my Yom Kippur experience in Stockholm I got some interesting responses, but none more so than the exchange of messages with Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, who was the brilliant and inspiring spiritual leader of Beth Jacob (Orthodox) Synagogue for four decades, who writes often for The Jerusalem Post, who was for years the editor of the distinguised Orthodox journal Tradition, and whose diary of the Six-Day War I have written about. Our messages touched on many things, but the focus of this exchange was the role of women in synagogue services. We do disagree on this and other issues, but there are few people in this world I admire as much as I do Rabbi Feldman. To put it simply, if the word “character” (in the moral sense) appeared in the dictionary next to a photograph, it could easily be a photograph of him. Rarely have I known a man of such high character. (His sense of humor is a bonus.) We both edited the exchange a bit, and the version below has his approval:
Your Stockholm experience was most interesting. Three quick reactions:
a) Sobering and humbling, was it not, to know that a teen-age girl took your Levi aliyah in front of the Torah. I hope she realizes whom she replaced. Was she a Levi-ette?
b) Regarding Neilah and the gates of prayer and heaven closing: A rabbi very close to me told his congregation this year that, yes, the gates were closing, but that we were all inside those gates, not outside…
c) Something nags at me: that Stockholm synagogue about to go full mixed seating: how do they answer to the ghosts of all their forebears who constructed a shul that was in keeping with full Jewish tradition: separate seating for men and women. With all their intelligence, learning, sensitivity, etc., what happened to these present-day good people and their sensitivity to the feelings of those who built the place from the ground up? Is there not a touch of arrogance in their implied statement that they know better than their predecessors how to pray to our Maker? I have always been troubled by the cavalier attitude with which synagogue boards change the orientation of their synagogues. It displays a certain misunderstanding about the role of a shul – which is to help us reach out to Gd and not simply to be a social occasion.
And one question: I am curious: how many people come to that synaogue on ordinary Shabbat mornings? (Not that any Shabbat can be ordinary.)
Have a meaningful Succos.
As always, I am honored that you take notice of my dithering. I love your point in b. It resembles the point made in the essay here, which I sent to my kids: http://www.meaningfullife.com/torah/holidays/1b/Vistas.php
You, being who you are, can cut to the chase and read the last three paragraphs.
On your points a and c, we are dealing with a very difficult matter, and I do not minimize its difficulty. I vividly remember your account of your arrival in Atlanta three days before Rosh Hashanah and finding that they had taken down the mechitza without consulting you. As I recall, you asked your wife to prepare for the possibility of returning to Baltimore. You stood your ground and you won, and I have always completely respected your position despite my different views of the role of women.
I doubt that the young lady who took my aliyah knew of it, and I hope she didn't. I was inspired to be replaced by her; it made me feel connected to the future. Nevertheless, I take your point about the expectations of their ancestors, although it so happens that the Stockholm shul was Reform before it was Conservative. Yet, go another century back (a short time in my calculations or yours) and you will find Jews who respected Torah law about roles of men and women. I have no illusions about that, and to an important extent I follow your lead in respecting the wishes of our ancestors. Had I any say in the matter, I would recommend that they leave the balcony to women only and set off a smaller section downstairs for men. As it was, the mixed seating was overcrowded and the other sections thinly populated, but I know that Halakhah is not a popularity contest.
Yet my own reading of Jewish history and the history of Halakhah suggests that there have been changes. I am sure you are aware of egalitarian groups who claim to be Orthodox–who deeply desire to be Orthodox– with the exception of the separation and separate roles for men and women. I know that your choice is to keep within the Law, and I respect that. But is there no possibility that Halakhah will one day in the future change on this matter? Some other things appear to have changed over the centuries.
If we have to choose between the continuity of Jewish religion and tradition and the preservation of different treatment of men and women, would you not consider a compromise? Must we go on relegating the intellectual and spiritual gifts of half of the Jewish people to roles in the private sphere of the family only? I would bet that you have ideas about how to give gifted women a larger role, even within Halakhah.
In any case, I would love to hear your thoughts about this difficult and sometimes painful issue. Perhaps it is simple in terms of law, but you know as well as I it is no longer simple in human terms. I know that many in the Orthodox community turn to you for guidance on this most important question. Can you pioneer a compromise within Halakhah?
With warm regards for Sukkot and beyond,
A quick non-edited reply to your note– and not proof read…
You assume that the mechitza in shul is a statement that woman's place is not in the public but the private sphere. Not necessarily so. Mechitza is strictly for the purpose of kavannah in prayer. A man is distracted by women in all areas of life. In the area of prayer, this distraction can destroy the essence of prayer, which has as its fundamental goal a full identification with Gd. Which requires, ideally, total concentration – kavannah – upon the object of prayer, which is the Creator.
This sounds strange to modern ears (even Orthodox ones), for we are accustomed to a relaxed social atmosphere in shul. But ideal prayer of course is not social. It is serious business. If it were social, sure, let men and women sit together. But if it is really serious, and my goal is to concentrate on Him Who made me and holds me in the palm of His hand, then all possible distractions must be removed. And women are a primary distraction. This has therefore nothing to do with the different roles that women play in Jewish life.
Women are gifted, women are insightful, women are perceptive, women are caring, women are (often) lovely to look at– but because they possess a certain magnetism that men cannot resist, a magnetism that is often sexual, they become, willy-nilly, a distraction to men during prayer. Although sex plays a major role in Jewish life, it is nevertheless physical enough for it to be out of place in prayer. Look at the orgies which accompanied Canaanite prayer, a pattern completely rejected by our ancestors in ancient Israel. To avoid even a hint of this, and to distance ourselves from such things, Jewish men and women do not sit together during prayer.
Full disclosure: the comment that the closing of the gates finds us inside the gates, not outside was spoken by my son, Rabbi Ilan Feldman, to the congregation in Atlanta during Neilah last week.
Be well, and have a gutten Shabbes and a gutten simchas toirah.
I appreciate all that you say. If I accept your argument (one of the standard ones) against mixed seating in the interest of men's kavannah–although I could argue that this is men's problem, not women's–do we not still have something to discuss about women's roles?
If I grant you the mechitza, I still have to ask why women's role as scholars, interpreters of Jewish law, and spiritual leaders is minimal compared to what they could contribute. Why not a woman rabbi for an all-female congregation–there would be no effect on men's kavannah–with women reading the Torah, etc? In fact this would improve men's kavannah by reducing the number of women in their shul.
But where are the intellectual and spiritual descendants of Berurya today? Why no female Soloveitchik? Theoretically, with the huge recent increase in women's education, we should long since have had many women among the greatest Torah scholars–but there are too many barriers in the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. Is there no way to elevate women as scholars to the very highest heights without distracting men?
Good shabbos, and chag sameach, Mel
Thanks for your response, In the outside world where there are no barriers to women, why are there few female physicists or mathematicians of great note? Why are men overwhelmingly dominant in certain fields, ( this is well known,is it not), while women are not? I know it flies in the face of feminist ideology, and it is not politically correct. (Look what happened to Larry Summers at Harvard when he dared to mention such things!), but could it not be that women are structurally not endowed with the intellectual means to be physicists or mathematicians (I would phrase this more elegantly if I were not rushing to shul this Friday afternoon). I don’t want to get into areas in which you are far more expert than I and in which I am not even a rank amateur, but is it not possible that there is an innate ability that men possess which enables them to excel in certain skills, and that women possess to excel in other skills? Could this possibly be one reason there is no female Soloveitchik? (By the way, there was one female Soloveitchik in terms of Biblical interpretation — though not Talmud and Halacha – and that was the late Prof. Nechama Leibowitz of Jerusalem- who was personally very Orthodox.) With respect to the "huge increase in women’s education" that you mention, why are there not more great Torah scholars in the non-Orthodox movements, who do not have "many barriers" that you claim the Orthodox put down?
I would see no problem with a female rabbi of an all female congregation. (But most women are too smart to want to be pulpit rabbis…)
Have a good shabbos.
Note: I will return to some of the questions in Rabbi Feldman’s last message, and will try to persuade him to continue with the dialog.