Egalitarian Liturgy: An Ethical Imperative?

Prelude
When I first mentioned that I would be a panelist discussing Egalitarian Liturgy, the immediate reaction I got was cynical to say the least. "Why would I want to get into that," and "you’re being railroaded" were just two of the comments reflecting the broad sentiment. Initially, I too was skeptical for probably the same reasons.

First, the word "Egalitarian" recalls the classic conservative vs. orthodox debates, and is often employed by those with specific agendas. 1 However, knowing the nature of the Hillel, and after speaking to the Rabbi, it seemed obvious to me that the panel would be cordial and informative.
Some questions still remain: why take the chance or why bother with this at all?

It’s a good question; one which requires its own post.

Later.

The Ideological Conflict

I do not want to discuss the details of the other panelists’ positions, mainly because I do not want to misrepresent them. However, I can present my own take on egalitarian liturgy and how I presented it in the discussion.
I did not like the title of the panel. The term "ethical" presupposes the discussion is a moral one – that there is some inherent value towards egalitarianism to which all people are subsumed. While there is a value to egalitarianism, I do not see it as an "ethical" imperative, but rather as a "religious" imperative. For the sake of this essay, I will define "religious imperatives" as requirements necessarily for the sufficient observance of one’s faith.

As one of the other panelists correctly noted, the word "liturgy" is not limited to prayer, but it includes all manners of public worship. When discussing inequalities in Jewish liturgy, the most blatant example is the role of the woman. 2 Women are relegated to sitting behind a mehitza restricting them from active participation. Furthermore, several prayers themselves are not amiable to many women. How can one properly worship when s/he3 is excluded from the primary religious mechanisms? This is a religious imperative.

However, there is a conflicting religious imperative: to maintain "The Tradition." The current actions of the community – following the practices of the previous generations – are as canonical as the Torah itself. It is arrogant at best – heretical at worst – to alter the practices of the previous generations.
Advocates of Egalitarianism could rightly point to the fact that liturgy has changed over time. Piyutim were added throughout the middle ages, many in response to actual events.4 For the proponents of tradition, the changes that happened in the past are valid, but we today have no right – or minimal right to make any further emendations. Furthermore, the nature of some of the changes currently suggested affect essential parts of the prayer service.

Specifics

To further understand this debate, we will have to examine some of the specific examples of the offending elements of Jewish liturgy.

I discussed the specific issue of prayer – the colloquial use of the term”liturgy”.; I noticed two categories of non-egalitarian prayer. The fist involves language of explicit or implicit exclusion. For example, “bessed are you…that you did not make me a woman is obviously exclusive of women. Other prayers exclude wicked people; in the amida prayer "velamalshinim" excludes heretics. An implicit exclusion would be the yekum purkan prayer which blesses “the congregation and their women and children” – implying that the women are not part of the community.

The other examples of non-egalitarian prayer do not excluded the petitioner, but somehow make the prayers inaccessible to the petitioner. "God" is most often referred to in the masculine. Or the use of the avot, the fathers and not the imahot, the mothers.

For the proponents of egalitarian liturgy, these types of passages exclude either the prayers from the individuals, or the individuals from the prayers.

Solutions?

Can there be a harmonious solution between the two conflicting religious imperatives? Regarding the issue of God language, I suggest that the imperative could be not to modify the language at all. According to all parties involved, God is supposed to be a non-gender. The Hebrew language lacks a gender-neutral conjugation; the masculine gender is used by default. By making a point of including feminine God language, one removes the neutral aspects of the masculine and instead emphasizes the gender. I will also theorize that this might have more of an impact on those communities who pray in English. The constant use of "Him" or "His" will have a greater impact on those who pray in Hebrew and will not be as sensitive to the masculine usage.

For the other changes, one would have to consider the nature of the prayer being modified. Of the passages mentioned, emending the yekum purkan would be the most plausible since it would have the least effect on the tradition. Few people would notice the change – assuming they know the aramaic and say all the words – and even if a community would still reject this change for themselves, they would not reject other communities who would adopt this change.5

Regarding the Amida, I cannot anticipate any substantive changes in the current siddurim. However, halakhically, it might be possible – if not preferable – to personalize the silent amida.6 The petitioner will then have the religious meaning while remaining in the halakhic tradition, and assuming the petitioner uses some discretion, s/he will not offend the social tradition.

Conclusion

Throughout the Jewish history, Rishonim and Achronim have reinterpreted Jewish laws to reflect the religious needs of the community.7 However, due to the fragmented nature of the Jewish community, there are rarely new religious needs which are applicable to all. It is not surprising that different communities will have different needs. Therefore, I cannot claim that there is a universal religious imperative for egalitarian prayer. I can say that it exists for certain individuals throughout all communities, and for separate communities themselves. However, so is the religious imperative of "Tradition" equally applicable across the spectrum of Judaism. When faced with this conflict, it is up to the communities to reconcile them for themselves. Each has free will to decide which imperative will take precedence. However, in the areas of conflict, both sides must realize there will be consequences – most often the ostracization of one community by another. This too is a religious imperative – and perhaps the real ethical imperative.

1. See for example the sponsors of the program.
2. There are inequalities among men which are not addressed. E.g. the preferential treatment to the kohen.
3. Although this would mostly apply to women, there are some men who are particularly sensitive to the exclusion of women from the service. For them, egalitarianism is also a religious imperative.
4. For more examples of the evolution of prayer, see the articles and books by Dr. Joseph Tabory
5. Or at least not for this reason alone. This would be in contrast to practices like women reading from the torah, which have a more divisive effect in the Orthodox Jewish community.
6. Minimally in the blessing of shema koleinu.
7. See the collected works of Jacob Katz among many others.

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2 Comments

  1. Danny
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