Tuesday, August 28, 2012

When My Movement Doesn't Match My Values

I just came across an article which argues that Ramah camps (the Conservative Movement's summer camps) are not modeling egalitarian ritual behavior (meaning they require boys to wear kippah, and tallit and tefillin at the appropriate age- but don't even suggest it for girls, much less require it, even though egalitarianism is at least a stated ideal in most Conservative communities), and that this is contributing to a failure in the movement's move toward women's participation and leadership.

These are the sorts of things that get my blood boiling.  In pluralistic settings, I get that one can't require women to do these things (although I was a pretty big advocate for "if you want to daven from the amud/read Torah, you need to wear a tallit/kippah" in college, before giving it up as exclusionary).  I understand that plenty of people hold positions that say that one is ok or even desirable, but the other- usually the ritual gear, is beged ish (men's clothing), or something of the like.

But in a Conservative movement camp?  In a community where we want to accept non-egalitarianism, but where the majority is egalitarian?  Fine- don't make it required.  But make it highly suggested.  Maybe even make it the standard- for which one can get an exception.  (Either way, some children will be taunted and made to be unusual.  How ethical is it for me to change which ones it will be?)

These things are significant Jewish ritual items, and for me at least, once they became a regular part of my life, they help.  It isn't some mystical thing- but when I'm struggling to pray, if I can just get my tallit and tefillin on, the rest starts to flow better.  And, if you think doing more mitzvot is better (a generally positive position)- then why not encourage girls to at least try these mitzvot out while at summer camp?  Why not ask our counselors to be role models?

If my daughters (hypothetical, at least for now) aren't going to get egalitarian role modeling at a Conservative camp, why should I send them there, instead of to an Orthodox camp where they'll at least get role modeling of frumkeit and, quite possibly, more time learning?  (Of course, this is utterly un-researched.)  Seriously- the thing that ties me to the Conservative Movement most strongly is egalitarianism.  If that isn't presented as positive to our youth...


  1. I don't think kippah should be lumped together with tallis and tefillin. Many women, including Conservative Rabbis, who observe the mitzvot related to tallet and tefillin do not chose to wear kippot for a variety of reasons which I will leave it for others, more knowledgable to explain. Briefly there is no mitzvah or blessing for putting on a kippah, as there is for the mitzvot of tallis and teffillin, and non Jewish men are expected to wear kippot in most synagogues -- certainly not tallis. As for the tallis and teffillin, so far is I know it's is still voluntary for women to obligate themselves to these mitzvot. while manditory for men.

    1. I don't make that combination when I'm speaking about halakha- only about sociology, which certainly seemed to be what this was talking about.

      On the other hand, while I haven't read them yet, there are claims made that wearing a head covering (kippah/hat/what-have-you) is a minhag strong enough to have the force of halakha. I can't evaluate that argument yet- but it's a pretty strong statement (although certainly not at the force of a mitzvah) that I don't want to entirely discount yet.

      As for tallis and tefillin- while it is voluntary to obligate oneself, as far as I can tell, the idea behind that teshuvah is that taking on such obligation is part of how you get the privileges of, for example, counting in a minyan. I'd encourage taking on those mitzvot in order to fully participate in Jewish public life. Of course it's a choice- but it's a choice that I believe in enough to encourage young women to at least get enough experience to make an educated choice. And Ramah is perhaps the best place for that- if they'll take it on.

    2. As far as I can tell, wearing/committing to tallis and tefillin is not a necessary requirement for counting in a minyan. But even re sociology there are arguments by women, who count in minyons, pray 3 times a day, etc etc against wearing a kippah which they see as simply not something for women. Again, the fact the non Jewish men are required to wear kippot in Synagogues seems to say it is somehow a "man's" thing. But the truth is that I can't argue the woman's view on this -- my observant daughter wears a kippah, tallis tefilling keeps kosher, shabbat,etc. My other daughters don't so to many it is a package.

      Anecdotally, I belong to an “egalitarian” Conservative shul where all who participate publically are expected to wear a tallis and kippah. Some years ago we were visited by JTS cantorial students and invited them to read Torah. One almost refused to do it at the last minute, when we said she had to wear a kippah and said she would read and wear a kippah because she had made a commitment to read but please don’t ask her again since she did not think it was appropriate for women to wear kippot. (She viewed tallis and tefillen differently)

      This as you can imagine sparked lots of discussion but I have come to agree with her that kippah should not be required because it’s not in the class of observance.

      On the other hand most men and women don’t wear tefillin at our weekday services, and many women wear a tallis on Shabbat don’t do so at a weekly service.

      Go figure.

    3. Thank you, Anonymous (of 3:50pm) for sharing your daughters' and your community's practice with me- it's good for me to hear about different examples of real life, outside of my rather unusual New York community.

      According to one shita (method), a woman needs to take on all the mitzvot asei she'hazman grama in order to count in a minyan, according to another, she doesn't. It depends on how you hold. I happen to have learned about the former position before I learned the latter, so it tends to be my default, in terms of how I think about things.

      I don't disagree that a kippah can feel very male- but there are lots of feminine ways of covering your head in a parallel way. Headbands, scarves of various sorts, doilies, hats, even large hair bows/clips could all fulfill the same function. My perspective is colored by an understanding of the Shulhan Arukh's position on women's head covering in general that makes it seem that a covered head is the default, and that having no covering is an exception for the never-married.

      But I understand that this is a place where practices vary significantly- I like to think that it is because we are still in transition toward a more standardized egalitarian practice (at least on my optimistic days). I just want to feel that our youth are being encouraged in that direction- and so often, what I hear about the Ramah camp experience is quite the opposite.

    4. My views are probably closest to those published by Rabbi Joel Roth in his responsa on women as Rabbis. I also had the impression that is was a "package" , that a woman needed to take on all of the mitzvot (except of course circumcision). However, I once emailed him about this and he said that wasn't his finding -- presumably to become a Rabbi a woman had to take on all the mitzvot, but not to, for example, serve as Sheliach or count in a minyon.
      I should add that for me my major problem is that both men and women in the Conservative movement (i.e. members of Conservative synagogues) do not generally seem to be in tune with the idea of obligations -- those born or those voluntarily adopted.

    5. I think having a rule that everyone on the bima wears a headcovering and a tallis helps women take on more mitzvot than they might otherwise. After all, most of the time, this is just for an aliyah, and it may be the only time that particular woman even tries wearing a tallit.

      Many women have begun daavening with a tallit after wearing one for the first time for an aliyah while few women refuse to take an aliyah just because they are asked to wear a tallit for a few minutes. Of course, there are always exceptions, but this is the way it generally goes. Regardless of what a woman chooses to do during daavening, the process of trying new things is important in an egalitarian community so that you can make an informed choice.

      For situations like the Cantorial student, I think shuls should be sure to have a variety of headcoverings and some feminine tallitot available. Asking her to wear a woman's hat or a scarf probably would have solved the entire problem. One should also never assume that any outsider knows the custom of your community. Anything required for the bima should gently be made clear to all guests in advance.

      Many Sephardim (like R. Ovadia Yosef) hold that even unmarried women should wear a headcovering while reciting brachot and the name of G-d. I have seen this principle in action in Israel where some girls will throw on a brother's kippah to light the Hannukah candles. Of course, they also hold that women cannot wear tefilin or say brachot on mitzvot they take on voluntarily.

      Until 150 years ago or so ago, most Jewish women and girls wore some kind of covering on their heads most of the time. That context is the only one in which most of the sources I've read make any sense at all. Girls also married much earlier so the period of time in her life where she was obligated in mitzvot but also showing her hair was quite short. Given all that, it makes sense that we don't have a lot of guidance about how women who are not married but regularly making brachot should behave.

      It does seem to me that taken as a whole, we come from an area of the world and a group of people where headcovering was normative. So while halacha does not require unmarried girls to cover their heads and we should not say that it does, I think there is plenty of room to argue that it is a Jewish practice. The bima is a place where we want to encourage both modesty and yirat shamayim (awe) so asking people to take on the package while on the bima seems very appropriate to me.