Shabbat Shira and egalitarianism

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
February 8, 2020

Today is a day of celebration and song. It is Shabbat Shira, when we sing the Song of the Sea. We hear the voices of our people thanking God for the miracle of the crossing. Today we celebrate Hazzan Schultz and in a few moments we will hear the choir--including a new melody composed for this occasion.

At the same time, this moment is a challenging one. There is friction amongst the Israelites. Even as they have witnessed miracle after miracle, they still do not have faith. They repeatedly ask Moshe if they were brought out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. After crossing the sea, they sing. Yet shortly afterwards, they cry out for lack of food. Any parent who has take a child to an amusement park would recognize the refrains “Are we there yet” “Are you trying to starve us”!
Eventually, they make their way to Sinai, where next week we will hear the revelation of Torah, of the Covenant that transforms us from Israelites to true Jews. Since that revelatory moment, we have struggled with Gd and with how to live our lives as Jews. This is the definition of the word Israel! In every generation, through their rabbis, Jews have worked to live according to Gd’s teachings.

For generations, every community has been assisted in their understanding of Jewish law and practice by their rabbi, who is appointed and recognized as the mara d’atra, the legal decisor. In his book on Jewish medical ethics, my colleague Rabbi Aaron Mackler wrote:
The positions authorized by the Committee [of Jewish Law and Standards] offer important guidance for Conservative Jews and others. Still, each Conservative rabbi has the authority to make halakhic judgments. Eash rabbi formulates decisions about numerous issues not discussed explicitly by the Committee, relying on other halakhic sources and his or her own judgment. For issues the Committee has addressed, each rabbi may choose among various positions endorsed by the Committee, or may even find a different position best mandated by halakhah Mackler, Aaron. Life and Death Responsibilities in Jewish Biomedical Ethics 2000, p.10.

This is a responsibility I take very seriously. I do not answer questions of Jewish law lightly, but consider sources, and the context of the question. Our tradition is based on case law, and is highly dependent on context. If you ask me what modest clothing means, it is quite different if you are going to a cocktail party, a beach, a fitness club or a wedding. If we discuss kashrut, there may be different answers if you have more or less control over the situation--ie if you are in your own home vs a guest in the home of another.

In my daily study of the Talmud, Judaism’s encyclopedic commentary on Jewish law and living, I am continually reminded how productive debate and adaptation are essential. The Talmud struggles with how to build a vibrant Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and the sacrificial rite.

What has kept Judaism alive and strong has been its ability to recognize the world around it. Two major factors have always influenced ritual change--new scholarship and new societal conditions.

Whereas an educated woman was noted as an anomaly in the Talmud or when speaking about Rashi’s daughters, in the modern world, men and women have equal access to education and hopefully, professional success. We now see women who are Orthodox rabbis and synagogue leaders. One could not have imagined that even a generation ago!

I have grown up within the Conservative movement, in egalitarian synagogues. From my bar mitzvah to USY, to rabbinical school, to CBI, my role models have included learned men and women, teachers and rabbis. In all of those contexts, women were always permitted to come for any aliyah. In some contexts, they were called as bat cohen or bat levi, in others it was to the rishon or sheni aliyah. Here at CBI, that was not the prevailing custom.

My predecessors did incredible work helping people discover the egalitarian nature of our holy traditions. They showed the sources from biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic to the present. They also understood that as Rabbi Meir Rabinowitz has taught, that our attitude towards those we once called “the fairer sex” have dramatically changed over the generations.

As we welcomed women as equal partners in our community, on our bimah, many have felt an asterisk on our egalitarianism. Those who were daughters of cohanim or levi’im were not able to have the aliyah that they felt was theirs. These conversations are not new. They have been ongoing. In the last eighteen months, four different ritual meetings have discussed varying tshuvot, responsa literature. I have taught multiple classes on how different Conservative Jewish communities allocate Torah honors.

In recent weeks, I reached out to colleagues across the country. In more than fifty responses, I found that the vast majority of Conservative congregations call women to the Torah for any aliyot. In some communities they delineate by tribe, while in others, they do not.

After repeated inquiries by interested parties, the Ritual Committee met on January 21, 2020. I began the discussion by restating the importance of the principle of egalitarianism to our Congregation, and that our current practice of conferring the Kohen and Levi aliyot only upon men did not match the vision of our community. To truly recognize men and women, means recognizing them in all contexts.

The Committee had examined the issue in depth in the past, and it had been likewise discussed in other Congregational forums. After considerable discussion of the ramifications of different models, the committee asked me my view. I said that I wanted a model that was consistent with tradition and our community. The model that fit that definition was the Rishon/Sheni model. While we discussed the wisdom of an intermediate step, the committee as a whole articulated a desire to live our values in the clearest expression.
  • What does this mean?
    • This means that any Jewish adult attending services will be eligible to receive any speaking- or non-speaking Aliyah.
  • Does this enfranchise or disenfranchise people?
    • This enfranchises our community. All members now have the opportunity to be called to the Torah. This does NOT eliminate the honor of those members who are kohen/bat kohen or levi/bat levi. If they would prefer only to accept the aliyah that was historically associated with them, we will honor their choice and call them only for those aliyot. Their name includes Kohen or Levi. It will be announced when they are called to the Torah. We are happy to reserve aliyot for them with prior notice--just as we would for anyone else.
  • What education do we plan next?
    • Bulletin articles will discuss the CJLS papers and the synagogue’s practices. We will teach more about how one actually performs an aliyah

With rights come responsibilities. To be a member of CBI, we must desire to work together. We must strive to serve the community as a whole, to ensure that all of our members are essential. We must listen to every voice--not only the loudest ones. We have expectations about ritual garb and dress for shul. The change we are now making to confer any Aliyah upon any Jewish adult, male or female, helps fulfill CBI’s egalitarian philosophy and mission. It is an expression of our commitment to the evolving principle of inclusion and respect for all.

This conversation is one that has been going on for a very long time. I want to conclude with two key points:
  1. This decision is because we are a traditional congregation and because I am a traditional rabbi. It is in keeping with Jewish law and a decision that is central to my role as the mara d’atra of the congregation.
  2. As a traditional congregation, we have a duty to listen to one another. We may not always agree, but our Torah teaches that makloket lshem shamayim, disagreements for the sake of heaven are themselves holy.

Just like the Israelites, we will continue on our journey. Let us now rise for our Musaf of Song. Shabbat shalom.