In honor of Mother’s Day, this blog post is about the changing attitudes towards women in Judaism. Until the 20th Century, Judaism did not have a very good track record in how it treated women. Much of the Torah is transcendent, setting high standards for ethical behavior like “love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet when it came to women, the Bible is sexist.
The Torah says that a woman is ritually impure during her menstrual cycle. The term for a woman with her period is niddah, coming from a Hebrew root meaning “to cast out.” Rather than accepting menstruation as a natural part of biology, the male authors of these parts of the Torah saw it as something to be feared.
Even today, some Jews practice the laws of niddah, so that ultra-orthodox Jews will not shake hands or touch a woman in case she may have her period. The impure state of niddah ends with the dunking in the mikvah, the ritual bath. Reform Judaism abolished the laws of ritual purity and most modern Jews do not practice them.
As Judaism continued to evolve, women still were not treated equally. In Jewish tradition, women have three commandments reserved only for them: the lighting of Shabbat candles, preparing challah, and once again the laws of ritual purity. These were the only mitzvot, commandments, that women were required to practice while men were obligated to perform 613!
Women had the option of participating in pray in the synagogue but only if sitting in the back section behind a mechitza, a divider. Women could not wear a tallis or yarmulke. They could not study or read from the Torah. And of course, women could not become a bar mitzvah or a rabbi. In the movie Yentel, Barbara Streisand has a passion for studying Judaism and wants to enter the yeshiva. Only by disguising herself as a man can she participate in Torah and Talmud study.
Then things began to change. For thousands of years, boys had become bar mitzvah, the rite of passage to adulthood where 13-year-old males read from the Torah. In 1922, Judith Kaplan became the first bat mitzvah in Jewish history. It only took 3000 years! Judith was the daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, the fourth branch of American Judaism. Mordecai Kaplan was a philosopher and innovator and he wanted his daughter to have the same experience as any other boy.
It probably was no accident that the first bat mitzvah was in 1922. Only two years earlier, in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Equality of women was an issue at the forefront of American culture, and Mordechai Kaplan responded with the first Bat Mitzvah. Today, most synagogues offer bar and bat Mitzvah equally, and give both boys and girls the opportunity to read from the Torah.
A second hurdle to women’s equality was in the area of leadership: in traditional Judaism, women could not become rabbis. That changed too in 1972 when Sally Priesand become the first woman rabbi in Jewish history. Rabbi Priesand was ordained a Reform Rabbi at Hebrew Union College, the same seminary where I studied. She became a rabbi in 1972, exactly 50 years after Judith Kaplan become the first Bat Mitzvah.
I also believe that the state of American society in the early 1970s helped Reform Judaism break through this barrier. At that time, the women’s movement pushed for equality of the sexes. In 1972, Congress passed the equal rights amendment, which guaranteed equality of the sexes in America but it was not ratified by enough states to become part of the Constitution. In the early 70s, women were also rallying for equal pay in the workplace and for equal hiring, based on one’s qualifications not one’s gender.
Judaism was ready for a new innovation, the first woman rabbi. Here is how Rabbi Priesand described her journey:
“I decided I wanted to be a rabbi in 1962 at the age of 16. Fortunately, my parents gave me one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child: the courage to dare and to dream. When I decided to study for the rabbinate, I never thought much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion the rights of women. I just wanted to be a rabbi. Thus, I have spent my entire career in congregational life.”
In the 21st Century, Reform Judaism has complete equality of the sexes in our religion. At my synagogue, Temple Shearith Israel, and at all Reform synagogues, women do everything that a man does: women study torah, pray, teach, become board members, and even become the president of the Temple (if they are gluttons for punishment!) Speaking of which, American society has come even further in the pursuit of equal rights for women, so that we almost elected a woman to be the president of the United States.
I am proud to be a Reform Rabbi because of the equality that our movement demands. The Bible teaches that we are all created in the divine image and with a divine spark. And thus it is our obligation to treat every person with dignity, equality and respect.