I guess it’s no secret that one (very un-legalistic) reason for keeping women from Orthodox leadership positions is that it will turn men away from the religion in droves, just like it did with non-Orthodoxy. The basic argument is that women reading Torah, teaching Torah, coming to shul, leading services; along with mixed seating, kol isha, and other dreadful things like women being witnesses and halachic advisors will make men feel like they aren’t “needed” anymore (read: emasculated). The point is that this is a clear correlation, and that this is a big enough problem that we “desperately” need new programming for men and “role models for young boys” in non-Orthodoxy—and that we can absolutely not let the same fate seize Orthodoxy too.
And basically, everyone knows that the term for this crazy thing is egalitarianism.
So it was a strange thing to do for the author of this article (yeah, it’s old, so sue me) to use the word to mean “pluralistic in general”:
Besides gender separation, another supposed inegalitarianism of Orthodox congregations is that if you’re not already familiar with the traditional liturgy, you’re likely to be lost. Conservative and Reform congregations announce page numbers. They sprinkle in English readings. And they tend to sing a lot slower. This, we are told, makes services more inclusive and accessible to everyone.
Or does it? Yes, they make what’s offered accessible. But often, what’s offered isn’t worth accessing in the first place.
It’s not all about gender egalitarianism in this article; in fact the whole thing takes a back seat, and is only really mentioned with regard to separate seating. Still, it’s not totally surprising that another author would read the article within that unspoken context. She writes:
What makes me uncomfortable with the article is the way Michaelson has used egalitarianism in its traditional sense as a “hook” to draw people in, and the implication that moving to an egalitarian prayer service and the inclusion of women in spiritual opportunities is somehow linked to a decrease in meaningful communal prayer overall.
It is the “hook”—here’s the thing; it’s not just the hook in this article. When people need a scapegoat—some reason non-Orthodox services can tend to be a little dry—they go for the easiest, most noticeable variable. And then blame it.
It’s not women, and that’s quite obvious. If you put any large group of people not sufficiently educated in liturgy together for a service, naturally they will need an educated leader to lead! This has nothing to do with the denominational divide; with their theology; with their views on gender. I think Michaelson, of the Forward article, gets that—how could we say that slowed-down responsive readings in English are due to women making it slower? Blaming the education gap on women is too easy—I happen to think it’s because those who were raised Orthodox are also more likely to have learned the service etc. The Reform education system educates to its own extent (which obviously won’t prep anyone for a full-length Orthodox service anyway), and I guess Conservative education is hit-and-miss depending on whether you make an effort or not.
I agree with the article, though, because Michaelson seems to be advocating a type of pluralism that isn’t all-inclusive—we don’t want it to be! (It’s why 4-year colleges have admissions committees and 2-year community colleges just put the kids who “shouldn’t have made the cut” into remedial classes for a long time.) His solution is simple:
Let’s rethink what we mean by “egalitarianism.” What if it meant “open to all who bother to make the effort”? What if synagogues distributed fliers that said: “Welcome! We are very glad you are here. Our service is somewhat traditional, because that traditional form works for us. You may be a little lost at first. So we warmly invite you to join our weekly Siddur 101 class, where you can learn the ropes.” People who choose to accept the invitation obtain the rewards. Those who don’t, don’t.
I think the biggest fear people have, by doing this instead of lowering the bar to the point where the less experienced can participate at the expense of the more experienced, is that they will seem elitist and unwelcoming. But it’s one thing to prohibit a certain demographic indefinitely, and quite another to offer them a way into the relatively specialized affair that is an all-Hebrew full-length service.
Not only would such an approach allow longtime participants to get more out of the prayer experience, but it would also suggest to newcomers that there’s something worth working toward. Things that come cheap usually feel that way.
I can relate to this; the Reform service is accessible—too accessible. The typical service is designed for people who, whether or not of their own accord, would be immobile without a prayer leader; know no Hebrew; don’t see themselves obligated in mitzvot; likely do not keep Shabbat and therefore find a longer service unnecessary; and spend minimal to no effort outside the synagogue to learn the basic layout of the siddur or other details. The service that is born out of these needs couldn’t have been any different! When nothing goes in, nothing comes out etc.
It seems to me that—excuse my bluntness—people want their inexperience catered to. I’ve been approached more than a few times by older people asking me to teach them Hebrew—which I highly commend them for!—but rarely do they follow through to the point where they can learn much. I occasionally get incredulous reactions by people when they find out I’ve been going to the “inaccessible” Conservative (upper and lower case ‘c’) synagogue even though I was brought up with no Jewish education, and that I taught myself Hebrew and the outline of the siddur and Torah and so on in the course of a year. To keep up at my synagogue, I had to do that—it had nothing to do with my own willpower, and certainly not in any way that any properly motivated person couldn’t do. “It’s impossible!” they say, and moreover, why would anyone want to make the attempt when the Reform temple is looming over you, ready to accept anyone—No Work Required? Worse, some blame the Conservative synagogue for not being pluralistic enough, perhaps even turning people away (which is already false because most people there aren’t very observant anyway).
Maybe the lack of “spirit” in non-Orthodox synagogues is precisely because they are trying to appeal to as many people as possible, and doing so in a manner that’s not very well thought out (i.e. responsive readings)? If they don’t like it, they don’t have to join…but if they do like it, they have no authority to demand that others lower their standards for them. It doesn’t work in school, it doesn’t work in business, it doesn’t work here.
Your author is very familiar with this concept in other areas as well. She has been through the public school system, and is well acquainted with the phenomenon of classroom proceedings being constantly held back for the ever-present few who probably belonged a grade behind.