Matot (Tribes) – Numbers 30:2 to 32:42
Mas’ei (Marches or Travels) – Numbers 33:1 to 36:13
This week we read a double portion – the final two parshot of B’midbar/Numbers. The Israelites are on the border of the Promised Land they are about to enter.
Matot begins with a lengthy discussion of vows. Upon reading this section, I was again struck with the fact that, in Torah, women are treated as second class.
But times have changed. Today women have greater equal rights both in the Jewish and secular world.
After reading sections of Torah like the section on vows, I began to wonder how this change happened…. So, like every amateur researcher, I went directly to Google….
The Torah tells us that both men and women were at Sinai as the law was presented. The laws, however, bound men to follow them and make sure that the women in their lives (daughters and wives) also followed the law. Women were economically dependent on men. Education and temple involvement by women was not considered important. It wasn’t until the ninth or tenth century that and the women were even accepted into the synagogue structure. On a voluntary basis women could learn Torah, and prayers. But, the women were placed in a separate section of the sanctuary.
Any real advances in women’s rights in the Jewish movements didn’t come until the middle of the nineteenth century. According to an article in the Jewish Women’s Archive, Reform Judaism in the United States by Karla Goldman, innovations in early American synagogues helped advance women. These included elimination of formal partitions between men and women. Mixed male / female choirs challenged the Orthodox prohibitions against female voices in a worship service. Plus, efforts were made to include girls in formal Jewish education.
The idea of mixed seating was introduced as “family pews” by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s Anshe Emeth Congregation in Albany, NY. The temple bought a former church in 1854 and rather than building new galleries for women, they decided to seat men and women together in the existing church pews. During the post civil war years, this “family pew” concept became accepted in liberal congregations. As a result, the attendance and ritual involvement of women grew.
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) was founded in 1872 and the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in 1875. Women contributed some funds, but had limited leadership roles. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise called for the development of a “female theological seminary.” A few students enrolled, but none advanced very far. Women did however; expand their role as religious school teachers.
In the 1880’s the first Jewish Sisterhood was formed in New York’s Reform Temple Emanu-El. The concept was quickly adopted throughout America.
In the 1890’s a few Reform congregations responded to a call from the National Council of Jewish Women to open a membership category for women who were not widows of deceased members. Yet, this call for membership and inclusion on Temple boards met with much resistance. It wasn’t until passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the American Constitution, granting women’s suffrage, that most Reform congregations offered women formal membership and invited sisterhood presidents a place on the temple board.
During the years after WWI, women gained status in the secular world and the Reform Temples assumed more with activities like community seders, summer services, sisterhood Sabbaths, and actual worship participation from the pulpit.
In 1922, a female student at HUC, Martha Neumark, become a candidate for ordination. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) debated the question of her ordination. Some traditionalists felt that her acceptance would split the Reform movement from the other branches of the Jewish world. Acceptance was denied and the question remained dormant for many decades.
Near the beginning of its inception, the Reform Movement adopted the confirmation process to replace the bar mitzvah. This process placed girls on an equal level with boys. Confirmation was the major educational effort for both sexes until the years after WWII when the bar mitzvah ceremony regained popularity in the Reform movement. As a result, the confirmation became an effort mainly for girls creating a gender inequality that the confirmation process was meant to correct. The first bat mitzvah was introduced by Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, for his daughter Judith Kaplan in 1922. The bat mitzvah took root in the Conservative Movement during the 1930’s and 40’s. Because of the Reform Movement’s deep commitment to the confirmation process, the bat mitzvah didn’t become popular until the 1950’s. At first the service for girls consisted of reading the haftorah on Friday night. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the Reform Movement’s bat mitzvah service was celebrated like the boys, on Saturday morning.
As the women’s rights movement gained more attention, no one in the Reform Movement questioned the appointment of the widow of a deceased rabbi to serve as the community’s spiritual leader in a Meridian, Mississippi congregation from 1953 to 56. It wasn’t until 1974 that the first women rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, was ordained. In 1985 the Conservative Movement ordained its first female rabbi, Amy Eilberg. By the early 1980’s the number of female Reform rabbinic candidates equaled the male numbers.
But the situation is not total equal. Female rabbis still address questions of marital status, childcare responsibilities, sexual orientation, wardrobe, and many problems getting along with male associates… plus the fact that female salaries trail those of men.
Today, Reform sisterhoods demonstrate an involvement in many diverse areas including educational projects, Breast Cancer Research, and a new Torah commentary. All show a commitment to redefining the traditions and texts of Jewish life. (Karla Goldman, Reform Judaism in the United States, Jewish Woman’s Archive, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/reform-judaism-in-united-states )
Looking back at all these changes, it can be noted that as the Jewish population became more secular, the thoughts and practices of the more liberal congregations changed from the old traditions held for hundreds of years to those that more closely matching the secular world. This thought is also expressed in the following from a comprehensive Wikipedia article on Women in Judaism: “Reform Judaism generally holds that the various differences between the roles of men and women in traditional Jewish law are not relevant to modern conditions and not applicable today. Accordingly, there has been no need to develop legal arguments analogous to those made within the Orthodox and Conservative movements.” (Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Judaism )
It is really astonishing to view the changes that have taken place in the last 75 years. One wonders what the next decades bring.