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February 2, 2018 by

Why I Became Fascinated by a Teshuvah on Women and Mitzvot

Ever read something you knew was arcane but been fascinated by it nevertheless? Maybe you even wanted to discuss deeply like when you were back in school, not just as a shallow “share” on a social media post? Well, that was me about three and a half years ago when I read Rabbi Dr. Pamela Barmash’s 30-some-odd page teshuvah (legal opinion) on Women and Mitzvot. Yeah, I said I was excited by a long legal treatise. Occupational hazard of being me, a literate Jew, a philosophy minor, English major, with a J.D. Anyway, Barmash’s holding was at once simple and revolutionary: women were never properly exempted, excluded, or prohibited from-time bound mitzvot. The relegation of women to second-class status was a colossal misreading of Jewish texts. 

The teshuvah asks if Jewish women are responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they have traditionally been excluded. Barmash argues both retrospectively and prospectively that women are in fact responsible to observe mitzvot. 

If you’re wondering why I found the teshuvah interesting, wondering why I thought anyone else would want to discuss it, I’d certainly understand. After all, on the one hand, many Jews don’t feel particularly bound or obligated to mitzvot, so what difference does the teshuvah make? On the other hand, many Jews who abide by mitzvot are so entrenched to years of their genderedness that they would not necessarily be inclined to discuss or be persuaded by it either. Personally, I fall into the former category, feeling bound like the definition of “Rebecca” and like my family before me to mitzvot. I feel tethered to Judaism even as I know it is hard to reconcile with humanism, feminism and modernity. This tension I feel between being both bound and bothered makes it pressing for me that women count in a minyan, be included in the Amidah and recite the Shema. I take no comfort in the theology which patronizingly tells us that women are on a pedestal, so close to God, that they need not bother with mitzvot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly—after the high of my initial epiphany—I read the teshuvah a couple times and put it away.

About a month ago, an opportunity arose which brought the document to the fore of my consciousness again: A few friends were discussing whether and how to do a second Shabbat-appropriate woman-themed event timed to coincide with women’s marches all over the world January 20, 2018. Last year, the group had hosted Rabbi Abby Sosland to address us. This year, I debated with myself whether to raise Rabbi Barmash’s 2014 teshuvah to the group. After all, it was three years old, I hadn’t heard anything about it since, and it was a little arcane. My bolder self rose to the fore, and I suggested inviting her. Lo and behold, the others agreed. Even more miraculously, when we wrote to Rabbi Barmash—out of the blue—she agreed to make the trip to address our group and congregation as a scholar-in-residence during Shabbat.

With the backdrop of the kavanah of the hundreds of thousands of women and men around the world demanding rights for women as humans, it felt as though perhaps the epicenter of Jewish law and thought had been temporarily relocated to our suburb.

As formidable a speaker as she is a writer, Rabbi Barmash spoke about her longstanding role on the Conservative movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, known informally as the “Law Committee.” She discussed the gradual changes the committee is implementing in streamlining its docket and that they are now for the first time inviting testimony from the class of laity potentially impacted by the committee’s halakhic decisions. She spoke, too, of the beauty of observing mitzvot and feeling close to Torah. By contrast, she argued that for too long women and other minorities have been alienated from God and Torah by the errors of halakhic interpretation she sought to rectify with her 2014 teshuvah. Over and over, Rabbi Dr. Barmash urged love of mitzvot and shamayim, the heavens.

Those involved in institutional life often observe that cultural change is difficult—arguing that institutions are like huge ocean liners which are hard to turn. Usually, this functions as an appeal for more time and serves to maintain the status quo. As an advocate and activist, I retort by saying that it is also important not to let the ship sink. Change must thus to be timely to save institutions and the passengers on the ship.

I still have no way to gauge whether the Law Committee (and the Conservative movement, by extension) will change course or capsize. The teshuvah I found profound three years ago is one of many hundreds authored, but which are often observed in the breach. It remains to be seen if Jews will feel bound to the holdings of this committee and the movement it represents. 

While I do feel bound to Judaism, I no longer feel tethered to the Conservative movement. I hope it succeeds in righting its course. Whether post-denominational, Modern Orthodox, or some other label, I will continue to adhere and resist. Maybe that’s just me. 

What I do know is that a message I personally needed to hear washed up on my shore three years ago, resulted in a wave sent back by way of a fan letter asking for the author to come speak, which led to another wave of a hundred or so people who would not have otherwise heard it receiving the message, too. Who knows where it all drifts and sails? 

Maybe, someday, we will finally crack the bottles that isolate our messages, shatter the glass ceilings that alienate us from mitzvot, and pierce the heavens with our prayers for law and justice to elevate our lives for blessing.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.