Monday, August 21, 2006

Praying With Feminists

Reform and Orthodox Judaism are increasing their membership. Conservative Judaism is getting smaller. What to do? Professor Judith Hauptman thinks she knows the answer. In The Jewish Week article (8/13/06), she says the problem is that the Conservative movement “instead of aggressively promoting equality for women as a grand and welcome new ethical truth, the leaders gave a choice to Conservative synagogues: to integrate or not to integrate women into leadership roles. Both option remained equally valid…If the Conservative movement wants to stop losing members; it needs to clarify its moral vision. It must withdraw the permission to be anything other than fair to women.”

I especially enjoyed her remark that went, “Talmudists like me know with precision that feminist changes, and others on the agenda like the ordination of gays as rabbis, are all doable within the framework of halacha.” She quotes the well-known Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg, “If there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way.” Professor Hauptman is indeed a distinguished Talmudist. She is, for those not familiar with her name, a Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her work on the Tosefta is challenging and interesting.

Despite her contribution to the academic study of the Talmud her halachic sensitivities, I must say, are less than zero. Using the cynical quote from the noted poseket hador (legal judge), Blu Greenberg illustrates her attitude. Her solution to all problems where there is a conflict between halacha and her values is to throw out halacha. She has little feeling for or appreciation of the post –Talmudic halachic tradition. Her mantra could be ‘if it looks archaic relative to my progressive liberal values, it is archaic. If it is archaic, throw it out.’ Her methodology reminds me of The Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. Every time Margaret Dumont object to part of the contract Groucho says no problem and Harpo tears off a piece. Eventually there’s nothing left. It is also clear that Professor Hauptman’s commitment to the relativism of halacha does not also include a sense of pluralist tolerance inside the Conservative movement. Here’s a lady, which if she had her way, would crack the whip, and force everyone into her feminist straightjacket. The only thing that is not relativist in her system of values is the rabbinical right of enforcing top down hegemony. Her progressive values have no place for allowing each congregation the freedom to decide.

What is most wrong with Professor Hauptman’s approach is that she is mistaken about the effect of feminism on the demographics of the Conservative movement. Since its beginning, the movement has been moving towards greater and greater egalitarianism. If one goes to many of these synagogues, they are frequently empty. If one goes to an Orthodox synagogue, where strict patriarchy dominates they are frequently full. Why is that?

I claim that when men and women sit together, synagogue attendance declines. When there is a woman rabbi, synagogue attendance declines even further. When there is separate seating, men hanging with men and women with women, synagogue attendance increases, because more men attend. The connection between the two, on my view, is not accidental. The fact that men do not have to sit with their wives and vice versa, makes synagogue attendance more attractive.

If the question on the table is how to increase membership and synagogue attendance in the Conservative movement, there is no basis in reality for the belief that pushing the egalitarian idea is a successful strategy. I understand the clock can not be turned totally back, but there is no empirical reason to force synagogues where women do not have leadership roles to change.

Historically it was the women who pressed their husbands to attend a synagogue where they would sit together. The husbands agreed, not knowing what they were getting into. Over time, the husbands became reluctant to go to synagogue. Women are in favor for mixed seating for many reasons. Sometimes they think they are less competent than their husbands in following the service. They feel if they sat alone they would be lonely. They think of separate seating as a form of discrimination. Once the egalitarian ideal was set in motion, irrespective of consequences, it was a short step to push it to the next stage and ordain women. No one has gone out and actually measured the effects on synagogue attendance when there is a woman rabbi. I would conjecture that when gay rabbis show up, no one will bother to find out what effect a gay rabbinate has.

Today in many of the great reform Temples in Chicago, the chazzan (cantor) is a woman, or the rabbi is woman, or both. The Saturday morning services are attended mostly by elderly women. A majority of students at the Reconstructionist Seminary are women. Reform and Conservative Seminaries are not far behind. In time the rabbinate will be, in all three movements, a women’s profession like education and nursing. I can’t believe women and gays chanting and preaching to a mostly elderly female audience is the way to attract men away from the golf course.

To be continued…

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