Modern Jewish women should evaluate their roles in the synagogue and society, speakers told students at a lecture Tuesday.
The Committee on Jewish Traditions and Political Renewal hosted the first panel in a four-part series. Tuesday’s discussion was called “Women of Valor: Jewish Women and Political Marginalization.”
The speakers included Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz from the Woodside Synagogue and associate professor of law at the University of Maryland, Dr. Pamela Nadell from the American University Jewish studies department, and Tali Gal, an attorney with the National Council for the Child.
Nadell gave a historical perspective about women’s roles in religion. She focused on the question of whether women could become rabbis. She said it is commonly thought that the notion of a female rabbi is to have stemmed from the women’s liberation movement, but it goes farther back than that.
“In America, since 1889, men and women have been discussing the question of whether or not women could become rabbis,” Nadell said.
Gal discussed the status of women in Israel and how they influence its politics and society. She said though women are underrepresented in the Israeli Parliament, many advances have been made in their political status by means of court decisions and through women’s work in non-governmental organizations.
Gal pointed out how most of Israel’s prime ministers have been war heroes and have held top offices in the Israeli army. She said women are assigned low, uninteresting positions in the armed forces and are never given the chance to rise.
She said she discovered the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent in an 1889 article by a woman named Mary Cohen titled “Could Not Our Women Become Ministers?” which touched upon this question.
She said there have been several independent instances of women holding a position of power. She said during World War II in Germany, a woman named Regina Jonas was secretly ordained a rabbi, this case being only one of six during that time period in Europe. She said the issue persists today, and it “will always be on the questioning table in American Judaism.”
Rabbi Breitowitz talked about the status of women. He said while the Talmud seems to put women in an inferior light by saying “the glory of the princess is to be inside,” and, “women are light-headed,” it also says that “women are endowed with an extra insight.” He said insight makes women unique and different from men, but certainly not secondary or inferior.
He said the practice of separating men and women during prayer is insulting to men, even though it seems insulting to women. He said the separation implies men cannot control themselves enough to refrain from impure thoughts while in the presence of a woman.
He said the differences between men and women will always be there, and everyone should utilize those differences to work together. Women should “maintain autonomy from a male perspective based on notions of control,” he said.
The host, Barak Epstein, said he was pleased with the program. His goal was to open the doors to discussion about women’s roles in religious and political life.
“The discussion that does exist, when it’s public, tends to be rather contentious,” Epstein said. “I wanted to provide a forum that would make people with many different viewpoints feel comfortable and feel empowered to express their viewpoints.”