An Interview with Rabbi Saul Berman on “The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism”: 44 years Later
This year we are launching a new section containing either interviews or essays revisiting articles from the post-World War II era that were groundbreaking and formative for our community. Kol Hamevaser writers will examine the influence of these articles and provide information and analysis that will guide the reader through the article and help understand their impact. Most importantly, we encourage readers to revisit these classic pieces themselves and engage with the ideas found therein. As such, we would love to hear your voices so please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas and comments about these pieces.
Rabbi Berman published his influential article on women’s status in halakhic Judaism in Tradition in 1973 (Volume 14:2). The article seeks to explicate and discuss possible solutions for three main areas of discontent amongst a growing minority of Jewish women at the time: a lack of opportunities for positive religious identification, their disadvantaged position in the realm of marriage and divorce, specifically the problem of the agunah (chained woman), and the relegation of women to a service role as mere enablers of men, enforced through Rabbinic apologetics. Rabbi Berman also analyzes women’s mitzvah obligations and exemptions in order to suggest that the halakhic status of women protects, and thus reflects, the prefered role of women by the Torah as one centered on home and family. He emphasizes however that this is not the mandated role, and that there is room for women to explore new roles. His evenhanded treatment of both women’s grievances and the Halakha has cemented this article in the canon of literature on women in halakha until today.
Mindy: What inspired you to write the article?
Rabbi Berman: The rise of feminism in the 1960s ran parallel with a great expansion of Jewish education for women. By 1971-1972 there was the beginning of the intersection of those two [phenomena]. An increasing number of Jewish women were being alerted to the need to deliberate directly and consciously on their status within halakha. At that time, I was teaching at Stern College and it was clear that these idea were beginning to resonate with the students there as well. This lead me to think that it was necessary to treat these issues.
In fact the first issue that I devoted myself to was the law of kol isha [female singing]. I wrote a lengthy article on the halakha of the topic, and submitted it to Tradition for publication. The editor of Tradition told me that he would love to publish the article, but because they had never published anything up until that point on women in halakha it would seem strange for their first article in that topic to be on something as narrow as kol isha. So he asked me if I would be willing to write a broader article relating to the status of women in halakha as an introduction to the field, and then it would make sense for them to publish specific articles about women in specific areas [of halakha].
M: What was the immediate reaction to your piece?
RB: They published a response article a couple of issues later by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and there were a number of letters to editor about it, so the article generated a lot of discussion, and a lot of controversy at the time.
M: What was controversial about it?
RB: Well first of all, it called for a moratorium on apologetics [regarding women’s status in halakha] and an honest review of what the halakha does and does not allow. [Second,] one of my three areas of focus [in the article] was about women’s ritual performance. I called for a more expanded review of the propriety of women engaging in many of the mitzvot that they had not been performing for a long time, like lulav, succah, sefirat ha’omer, and keriyat shema, and it was not clear that everyone was excited about the idea that women ought to expand their performance to these areas.
M: What are the most dramatic changes for women in Judaism in the past 40 years since you wrote the article?
RB: There has been a major expansion of women’s participation in mitzvot from which they are exempt, but which they are still permitted to engage in. Broadly speaking, women [40 years ago] had not been engaged in [these mitzvot], except for isolated individuals. But gradually, there has been a great expansion of women’s participation in mitzvot from which they are exempt.
The advance in women’s talmud Torah is [also] just absolutely unprecedented in Jewish history. Looking at the aggregate there are huge numbers of women today who are intensely involved in the study of Talmud. From this broad base of common practice [of women’s talmud Torah] today, we are also seeing the beginning of the emergence of a handful of women who are serious Torah scholars, with contributions to Torah and halakha that are quite extraordinary.
M: You mentioned that in the article you called for an end to apologetics. Do you feel that call has been heeded? How do you feel about the state of apologetics today?
RB: What has happened in the general Orthodox community is that the Modern Orthodox community and the Charedi community have been butting heads over the question of the potential for expanded leadership roles for women. For many segments of the Charedi community, the expansion of women’s roles is viewed as a threat to the stability of the culture of Jewish families and so [rabbinic leadership] is working very hard to suppress that [threat]. The problem that they are confronting is that they do not have strong halakhic ground on which to suppress [this expansion] and so the grounds have sort of shifted from halakhic grounds to “mesorah” grounds. They will argue that various changes are not appropriate for women because they are not the mesorah. So in a way, mesorah has become a new apologetic, a new way to declare unacceptable actions which are permissible according to halakhah.
M: Would you consider this reliance on mesorah then to be outside the realm of Modern Orthodox ideology?
RB: The reality is that there are distinctive kinds of ideological notions that are characteristic of the Charedi worldview, and distinctive kinds of ideological notions that are characteristic of the Modern Orthodox worldview. Mesorah is an idea which comes from the Chardie worldview. The Charedi community was already early on using common practice as a basis to certain kinds of developments and decisions which was not as common within the Modern Orthodox community, which tended to rely more on whether something was permissible or impermissible strictly al pi din [by letter of the law].
Although this mesorah kind of thinking has shifted into some people within the Modern Orthodox community, I would still consider it to be essentially a piece of Charedi ideology that has been gravitating into the Modern Orthodox community.
M: As part of your justification for writing the article, you wrote that the even if the majority of women have found satisfaction within the existing patterns of halacha, “minorities of one generation have a strange way of becoming the majorities of the next.” Did you expect that to happen when you wrote this article, and do you think it has happened today?
RB: I was not expecting that to happen. What I was expecting to happen, and what is much more common in halakhic practice, is that minority positions impact on majority positions, and can often come to be viewed as acceptable alternatives, even if they do not displace the majority position. In my most optimistic thinking about what has been happening in regards to women in halakha, I think that is exactly it. These relatively new minority positions and practices have an impact even on the majority and they are coming to be accepted as acceptable minority positions, even within the broader community.
Now this is a struggle, but it can happen. A good example is the study of Talmud by women. There are still serious pockets of Orthodox communities where they do not view it as acceptable for women to be studying Gemera. There are even many students at Stern College who will not take courses in Gemera because they believe that it is not appropriate for them to be studying it. On the other hand, there are lots of institutions now where Gemera is systematically taught.
One thing which I had in fact thought there would be a greater interest in pursuing was the notion of women’s obligation in mitzvot, but that did not turn out to be the case. It turns out that the majority of women are quite gratified in being able to perform mitzvot at will. As long as the option is available to them and it is not viewed as outlandish for them to do it, that is sufficient for them to have a grasp on this as mode of avodat Hashem [service of God] that’s important. And for Ashkenaz Jewry [for whom women recite blessings on performing mitzvot even from which they are exempt] this is really true in many ways. In the blessing [Ashkenazi women] say “as You [God] make us holy with Your commandments” and this provides a level of spiritual gratification that has turned out—at least compared to what I had thought originally—to be deeply gratifying to the vast majority of women, and they are not looking to necessarily become obligated.
M: You wrote about sensitizing synagogue architects so that mechizot do “not constitute insurmountable barriers to the approach of the Divine presence” for women. Women’s sections and treatment in synagogues have been very popular topics in recent years, even amongst more right wing communities. Why do you think we are still talking about this, and still have these problems?
RB: The reality is, as Rav Soloveitchik used to point out, there are two opinions as to what mechizot in a shul are supposed to be: whether the mechitza is supposed to prevent mingling of men and women, in which case it just has to be a mechitzah of ten tefachim; or, whether it is intended to prevent the genders from seeing each other so that they should not be distracted from their kavanah [concentration]. So that difference in approach will not disappear. But I think that even within the context [of the latter opinion] there is a difference, for example, between a mechitzah that is six feet tall which is placed at the back of the shul with the women behind men, as opposed to it being placed in the middle of the shul so that there is a manifest indication that the women’s davening stands equally in the presence of Hashem.
M: You write that “lesser demands [on women] reflect only one thing, less significance to the endeavor [of tefillah],” specifically in the context of demanding more from women in synagogue. So why do you think women’s sections still take so long to fill up on a Shabbat morning today?
RB: I think that we have not accomplished as much as we need to have accomplished. Of course there is much more participation by women today than ever before in shuls. Part of that has to do with the expansion of eruvin. But if that just means that more women show up to shul somewhere in the middle of reading the Torah, then that is not a healthy situation. So I think we still have a long way to go in this area.
It is vitally important for women to understand that—despite the extensive debate amongst rishonim—at least according to the Rambam and many others, daily tefillah with kavanah is in fact a Torah obligation. And cultivating the skills of tefillah is a really important thing to do, and that happens less if the focus on being in shul is the social experience as opposed to the experience of davening and reading the Torah.
M: You write at the end of your introduction “If, however, this paper encourages such research and opens the questions for serious discussion, I will be gratified.” Were you gratified by the conversations and reactions this article sparked?
RB: I feel that the article did spark an enormous amount of discussion, and some substantial action in different segments of the community in different ways.
There were many colleagues in the rabbinate who felt encouraged, on the strength of their evaluations of the positions taken by my article and its responses, to encourage the expansion of roles by women. Certainly, there were also many who were encouraged by it to expand their engagement in the prevention of igun [chained wives] and the use of the prenuptial agreement [which was suggested as a solution to that issue].
I think that it also sensitized people to the care that needs to be taken in using Talmudic statements about women’s roles in too light a manner, without recognizing the offense that can often be taken when people use those sort of Talmudic phrases without appropriate discretion. [Additionally] I would say that it also had the effect of the welcoming of women’s tefillah, and helping create the sense of expectation that their tefillah should meet the same kinds of standards that men’s tefillah has.
There was one thing that I had thought when I wrote the article that did not happen. I thought that the article could contribute to the gradual development of an entire literature related to each specific mitzvah from which women were and were not obligated, which would enable us to see much more clearly what patterns [exist] and come up with novel attempts to conceptualize what all of that means in terms of the Torah’s understanding of gender differences. That has not happened; while there is a huge body of literature on the obligations or exemptions of women from specific mitzvot, there has not been a great unfolding of patterns.
Even my own thesis [that women centered on the home and family is the prefered, and therefore halakhically protected, but not mandated, role] has not been further developed or demonstrated. I still believe that [my thesis] is true, but I don’t believe—I didn’t then and I still don’t—that it explains all the pieces. Now I tend to think that the issue is more multifactorial: gender issues, social issues, and other factors I am not sure of as yet. But I would love to see further discussion about that.
M: So do you plan to write anything further about that topic or are you hoping someone else will take up the baton?
RB: Well who knows. It depends on how much time HaKadosh Baruch Hu gives me [laughs]. I’ll wait to find out.
Rabbi Berman’s article can be found at http://traditionarchive.org/news/article.cfm?id=104009