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Correy Shefman

Corey Shefman: Making The Case for Conservative Judaism

Corey Shefman, posted October 3, 2013, first published Feb 26, 2013

Ten women were arrested recently at the Kotel, the Western Wall. These Jewish women were arrested because they were praying as a group.

Many outside Israel might not be aware that not only is the Kotel separated into men’s and women’s sections, but in fact, women are forbidden by Israeli law from holding any religious ceremony while at the wall. This includes group prayers, wearing a tallis or reading from the Torah.

Let’s be clear here. A group of women were praying together at the Western Wall. They were arrested because of it. They weren’t causing a disturbance or being disrespectful. They were praying.
Since the incident took place, Jewish bloggers and writers around the internet have issued a renewed call for change, a call which had already been escalating for months. This coincides with the appointment in January of respected human rights campaigner and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to determine what might be done and make proposals for resolving the dispute.
But the segregation and coercion of women in the public sphere by the ultra-Orthodox in Israel extends far beyond preventing them from participating in prayer at Judaism’s holiest site. We all remember last year when an eight-year-old girl walking through Beit Shemesh (an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem) had rocks thrown at her for dressing ‘immodestly.’ We can’t forget the bus incidents either –ultra-Orthodox men demanding that women sitting on a public bus move to the back.
Maybe most galling, however, is that whenever these incidents do occur, it’s never long before we start hearing about how in reality, ‘it was the women’s own fault’ for provoking the ultra-Orthodox men. If the women hadn’t insisted on saying out loud the words of the Shema, they wouldn’t have been arrested.
Hopefully I’m not the only one who sees the problem with this ‘logic.’
Fortunately for the ultra-Orthodox who perpetuate this discrimination, successive Israeli governments have relied on their political parties to maintain the balance in a fractious Knesset. This has meant that the ultra-Orthodox communities have enjoyed disproportionate power relative to their population size and participation in Israeli civil society. This influence dominates in the governments’ regulation of family issues (marriage, divorce and adoption) as well as allowing their representatives to be the ‘official voice’ of the government on religious issues (especially important when it comes to recognizing conversions). As a result, exclusivity pervades all of these institutions in Israel and for many citizens, that is just the way things have always been.
When I was about 12, I remember telling my mother that a woman shouldn’t wear a kippa or tallis and the matriarchs shouldn’t be mentioned in the Amidah. My reasoning amounted to something along the lines of: “Who are we to mess with traditions that have held strong for hundreds, if not thousands, of years?”
Later, as a student at McGill, the student-run shul I attended had a mechitzah. We were separated from the women, and having grown up going to Conservative shuls in Toronto, it was strange to me. But the women prayed, sang and danced (it was a Breslov minyan) as fervently as the men did.
I gained an abiding respect for the Orthodox communities during my time at that small, Orthodox minyan. Respect for the depth and honesty of their faith and the eagerness with which they welcomed strangers into their little community. (It probably didn’t hurt that I also experienced my first real tisch while there!)
But today, I daven weekly at a Conservative shul in Winnipeg that counts women as part of a minyan, is fully egalitarian and recently became the first Conservative synagogue in Canada to celebrate a halachic wedding between two men.
It is not for the ultra-Orthodox, in Israel or elsewhere, to define Jewishness. None of the ‘branches’ of Judaism is any more ‘true’ than the other. Each has grown and changed over the decades and centuries. Even the most stringent haredi sect would seem foreign to Jews a few generations ago. The goal is not to reinvent Judaism every time society at large becomes more progressive. Rather, Jewish communities need to continuously examine their own beliefs and values, asking whether certain rules require reinterpretation given the state of our own communities and the need to stay relevant. Judaism has never been a static religion and it should not become one now.
Each of us must ask ourselves whether we can personally justify the treatment of women by some in our community as inferior, on the basis of one interpretation of halacha.
I am not a rabbi, and do not claim to be able to interpret Torah or Talmud at any sort of advanced level. But I am a Jew and my Judaism does not discriminate.

Corey Shefman is a lawyer and social justice advocate in Winnipeg, by way of Thornhill, Montreal and Wales. This article first appeared in the Jewish Tribune.

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