A Modest Beginning

“A Modest Beginning,” by Esther Ticktin (z”l)

Originally published in The Jewish Woman: An Anthology. Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review. Number 18. Jewish Student Press Service. Summer 1973.

Reprinted here with author’s permission. More on and from Esther Ticktin (1925-2017).

At a recent conference at which representatives of various “new” Jewish communities (like havurot, batim, Ezrat Nashim, Fabrangen) as well as “new” Jews struggling alone, gathered for mutual support and stimulation and the possible formulation of a vital ideology for our day, a number of ended up saying that it may be time to start thinking and talking about a “new halachah [Jewish law].” We were fully aware of the immense obstacles in the road for even the beginning of such an undertaking. No one had any easy answers to such questions as: Halachah for whom? By whom? By what criteria? On what authority? Along what lines of continuity? And yet we all felt that there already exists a new religio-ethical consciousness, waiting and ready to be brought forward in clear words and deeds. There are values by which many of us live or try to live, clearly Jewish values, though unacknowledged by the rabbinic authorities of our day. But we are timid and hesitant about them because we have not as yet committed ourselves to them as halachah–as the logical outcome of our tradition and historical experience.

Instead of first trying to make my way through the morass of theoretical issues, I am going to make a beginning by jumping into a concrete problem and proposing four new halachot for our consideration. They deal with an issue close to my concerns: the entry of women into the congregation of Israel as full and equal partners, and what men must do to help bring this about. I chose to begin with these four halachot, not because they are the most important issues for Jewish women today, nor even for women’s participation in Jewish religious and intellectual life. I chose them

(1) because they are based in already operative minhagim (customs),

(2) because they are doable,

(3) because they are consciousness-raising and sensitizing, and

(4) because they involve our own actions rather than mere advocacy (as would halachot dealing with equality in education, opening up the rabbinate to women, changing the marriage and divorce laws, etc.)

The “new” halachot I am about to propose area not new at all. They do not require any new sensibilities not found in the Torah or in rabbinic tradition. In fact, they are solidly based in both, as well as being practiced by a growing number of “new” Jews. What they do require is the recognition and acknowledgement of a new social reality to which the traditional principles have to be applied. The social reality I speak of is the existence of a significant number of new Jewish women: women who have not been socialized to accept the traditional exclusion of women from full and equal participation in the spiritual and intellectual life strangers in the house of Israel and are begging, asking, demanding or screaming (depending on their temperament and tolerance injustice) not to be shunted off behind a mehitza (partition), to be counted as equals in minyan [prayer quorum], to be called up to the Torah, to be allowed and trained to lead the congregation as schlichei tzibur [leaders of community prayers], and to be given the opportunity to study Torah and contribute to its growth and development. The existence of such women and their claims are a new social reality which cannot be denied even by those men and women who deplore it.

My very modest proposals are addressed to those men who are able to hear the claims of the new women (I will speak to the relevance of these proposals to women later.) But first I must make a distinction between two groups of traditional Jewish men, both of whom are able to hear and understand what the new women are saying, and both of whom should, therefore, feel addressed, if not commanded, by what I am proposing. The only difference between them is that one group feels itself bound by the piskei din (legal decisions) of the contemporary Orthodox rabbinate, while the other does not. The orthodox men may, for that reason, be unable to comply with one of the two categories of the mitzvot lo ta’aseh (negative commandments) that I am about to describe. Knowing some of these men to be honest and sensitive souls who are agonizing over these issues, I want to say in all humility, that I hope and pray that their inability to say yes to that category of mitzvot be in the realm of the “not yet.”

The Biblical basis of both categories of these “new” halachah in “for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” And the particular Jewish galut (exile) experience that I ask us to remember is the experience of exclusion: exclusion from medical school, Ivy-League colleges, professional and social clubs, etc. in the “hospitable” and enlightened countries, total exclusion from the economic and intellectual mainstream in the more benighted ones. If we can at all remember this basic galut experience—doesn’t our very Jewishness stand or fall on our ability to remember?–then we also remember what we expected of a decent, sensitive gentile in that situation. We expected him to express the sense of justice and common humanity by refusing to join a club or fraternity that excluded as Jews. Is it too much for Jewish women to expect the some kind of decency of Jewish men in relation to us?

The first category of the new mitzvot lo ta’aseh, then, is based on the idea of not being a beneficiary of a policy of exclusion, “for you know the soul of the excluded.” It consists of two parts:

(A 1) Do not participate in a minyan which separates women behind a mehitza (even if the women assent to such treatment).

(A 2) Do not accept an aliyah [“going up” to the Torah, an important service honor] in a minyan which does not call up women to the Torah.

(These are the two mitzvot which an orthodox Jew cannot as yet fulfill—although he might consider the second as a form of self-discipline even today.)

Well-meaning and sensitive Jews are sometimes troubled by the divisive potential of such a mitzvah. But to me it seems a double standard and hypocrisy to respect the principled insistence on the mehitza by orthodox Jews, on the one hand, and to make light of the equally principled insistence on justice for female Jews, on the other hand.

The second category of “new” mitzvot lo ta’aseh to all Jewish men. To may of us it seems a simple matter of menschlichkeit [humanness]–but, certainly, to Jews steeped in a tradition that teaches such extremes in delicacy of feeling as “If there is a case of hanging in a man’s family record, say not to him, ‘hang this fish up for me’” (Baba Mezia: 59b), the relevance of this category should be obvious. But the fact that some of our most spiritually sensitive men are guilty of ignoring these mitzvot makes it necessary to state them explicitly.

This category also consists of two parts. The first part says:

(B 1) If, for your own spiritual uplift or social needs, you go to a Farbrengen with the Rebbe, or participate in any other spiritual experience from which women are excluded, do not speak of it to your mother, your sister, your wife, your girlfriend, your female student or counselee, or to your daughter. In fact, do not speak of it to your son either, because he may be less sensitive or less self-disciplined than you. [1]

The cruelty and teasing quality of talking about an experience from which the hearer is forever excluded should be obvious. But, somehow—could it be because the men do not credit the spiritual needs and hungers of Jewish women?–I have heard so much of this teasing that I must assume the men who do it to be unaware of the pain and anger they are causing. I have even heard an otherwise excellent youth leader refuse to organize an alternative minyan in which men and women would be equal, not because he had any orthodox scruples against it, but because in his own words, “the only place I can daven with kavana [pray with intention] is a chassidic shtibl [small, traditional prayer community].” It so happens that because of where he lives, he can get to that chassidic shtibl only once or twice a year, but in the meantime he denies the possibility for kavana to every woman who hears him.

In light of the first halacha (A 1) I proposed, a non-orthodox Jew should refuse to go to religious events that exclude his sisters, but if the desire, or the need, or the curiosity is so great that he “must” go, let him, at the very least, keep quiet about it.

The second halachah in this category is based on the same delicacy of feeling required by the tradition as the first, only dealing with action rather than words. The second part says:

(B 2) Do not participate in an exclusively male dancing circle when there are women and female children standing around and forbidden to enter it—regardless of whether the purpose of the joyous dance is Simhat Torah, se’udah shlishit [third meal at the close of Shabbat] or a wedding. [2]

I have, myself, cried, and my daughters have cried, about having been excluded from such circles, and we have simply not been able to understand how some of our close male friends could abandon themselves in a joy that deliberately and blatantly excluded us. (By the same token, I shall never forget that my father, alav ha-shalom [peace be upon him], refused to participate in the dancing on the Simhat Torah [“Joy of Torah,” festival] when he took me with him to the Rebbe. In fact, that is when he stopped going there himself. It was also my father who first taught me the gemara [Talmudic text] quoted above. All this took place some forty years ago, but it is probably the strongest reason why I continue to believe in the humanizing power of the Jewish tradition.)

I know, of course, that most orthodox women are socialized from childhood on not to covet such “male prerogatives.” My feeling is: how sad for them, their vitality and self-respect! But regardless of how we react to their “willing” acceptance, the new social reality is that there are more and more women who, like Martin Luther King’s children at the all-white merry-go-round, ask, “Daddy, why can’t we go on it?” And no apology in the world will convince them that they “separate but equal” women’s circle is just as good. (We may get to feel that it is better, as many Jews and Blacks and gay people feel about their communities in America today, but by that time we would be on our way toward creating our separate feminist religious community—hardly a necessary or desirable development.)

The alternative for the non-orthodox is simple enough: form or join a circle of men and women. But what about the orthodox men? Am I condemning them to mourning or to celebrating behind closed doors where no hungry, longing female eyes can watch them? I think I am. What I think I am saying to them is: “As long as you cannot or will not come up with a solution to the exclusion of women from communal religious celebration, decency and common humanity should keep you from wanting to celebrate, yourself. The excluded are not, after all, the unknown and unknowing strangers; they are your mothers, sisters, wives and daughters whose eyes have been opened and who now know that they have been kept out. If you are powerless to bring them in—then, maybe, there is no reason for you to rejoice!

But whether or not my orthodox friends can impose these restrictions on themselves, there is now a community of new Jews in this country, dedicated to a revitalized and spiritualized Yiddishkeit which includes women as equal members of the covenant. For them—for us—at least, let me repeat the four halachot I proposed:

(1) Do not—on halachic, religious grounds—participate in a minyan which separates women behind a mehitza.

(2) Do not—on halachic, religious grounds—accept an aliyah where women are not called up to the Torah (and explain your reasons).

(3) If you have to participate in an all male religious event, and enjoy it or are uplifted by it, do not speak to a woman about it (nor to a man either).

(4) Do not enter a circle of male dancers which excludes women, whether for Simhat Torah, a wedding or any other religious or secular occasion, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.

Do not let the fact that many women assent to their exclusion divert you from the recognition that your participation is perpetuating an evil, an oppression. If your wife, your beloved, or your daughter cannot be in it, neither should you—regardless of whether they would want to or not. The children of Israel did not want to leave Egypt; they had to be dragged out. Oppression can become a comfortable habit for the oppressed. Which does not mean that you have a right to participate in it.

As for women: Except for the first halachah which, of course, I consider obligatory for all women (again, with the possible exception of some orthodox women, for whom it is “not yet” possible), the other three halachot have to be translated into mitzvot aseh (positive commandments) for us. We must actively seek and insist on equality and full participation, certainly avail ourselves of all such opportunities where they exist, and create them where they do not as yet exist. We must work on raising our consciousness so that we can immediately spot the subtle exclusions and put-downs which make us strangers in our own house. And we must become aware of our real power. As mothers, we might consider boycotting camps and religious schools that practice discrimination against our daughters. We must certainly challenge our male friends when self-indulgence or laziness keeps them from observing the above mitzvot or from helping to create opportunities and occasions in which we can all, together as equals, seek to find our way to God and Torah.

Some thoughts on process:

The proposed four halachot are, of course, based on already existent minhagim. But they are more than minhagim made explicit. In proposing them as halachot, I imply the principle that whenever a new minhag is motivated by a moral and religious insight, that moral and religious insight has a claim on us as individuals also. In other words, it has the potential of becoming a halachah, a mitzvah. But it does not actually become a mitzvah until it is proposed to the community as such (i.e., as a potential mitzvah), and accepted by a consensus. That not all minhagim are in that category should become clear when we think of new minhagim like sitting on cushions on the floor for prayer, instead of on chairs, of separating the Kabbalat Shabbat [welcoming the sabbath] service from Maariv [evening service] by a meal in-between, or other such local customs based on convenience, taste, comfort, esthetics, experiment, etc.


1. As proof-text for this mitzvah, read the complete mishna and gemara from which the above quotation is taken (Baba Mezia 58a-59b) BACK

2. Cf. “Bring not your small children to visit one who was bereaved of his small children.” [Sefer Hassidim 13C no. 103, p.56), or “Abash not him who has a physical blemish or family stain.” (Orchot Zaddikim 15C ch.21). All of which seems to say: “Do not flaunt your privileged status.”
See also “Toward a Gender Aware Approach to Abrahamic Dialogue” based on this article.

One thought on “A Modest Beginning”

  1. I deeply appreciate all of the thoughts and feelings that are behind this writing. As a woman in ministry, I’ve long struggled with the role of simply being called to ministry as a woman. Elohim has never explained to me why HE chose to anoint and call me into ministry when it has always been clear that I will never be fully accepted by the “men’s leadership”. Over the years that I spent as a missionary in Thailand, I constantly found myself being used and manipulated by male pastors and it was so wounding to my spirit. I’m not inclined to promote myself or to be pushy but I am willing to step up when the Spirit moves me. On my last trip to Y’srael, I found it so humiliating to be forced to change my seat as the “rabbi” that had to sit in the seat next to mine found me far to “dirty” as a woman to sit next to as he might have to touch me. I can find no rightful cause in the Torah for men to treat any woman in such a way and to be denied participation in the worship and celebration of Elohim is just plain wrong. Sadly, I don’t really see any hope for change on this side of the Great Tribulation. I do believe that everything will be changed in HIS Kingdom. I so long for that day!

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