Monthly Archives: November 2017

Thanksgiving Prayers

Happy Thanksgiving -Here are the links to  three of my prior posts in which I posted Thanksgiving prayers.  I am posting tonight to give everyone a chance to print out before the holiday. In future years, I hope to post a few more historic Thanksgiving day services from earlier in the century.

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1940 – Rabbi Joseph Lookstein (2014)

Rabbi Joseph Lookstein’s Thanksgiving prayer was exceptionally universal and was picked up from my blog by several widely read online sites as a wonderful universal prayer- ideal for Thanksgiving reading. Here is a pdf of just the service.Thanksgiving Service at KJ 1940

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1945 – Rabbi David de Sola Pool (2009)

Here is the 1945 Minhat Todah- Service for Thanksgiving Day, Congregation Shearith Israel, NY by Rabbi David de Sola Pool. A version of this service is still done at the synagogue. (If anyone wants to send me a pdf of the current version, I would appreciate it.) Thanksgiving Service- 1945 Rabbi de Sola Pool (pdf of service)

Service for Thanksgiving Day 1905- In Commemoration of 250 Years of Jews in the US(2016)

There was a special convocation in 1905 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in the United States. It was held the Sabbath before Thanksgiving and the prayer was written by Rev H. Pereira Mendes of the Spanish- Portuguese synagogue of NY.

thanksgiving-prayer

Elsewhere on the Web

1789 Sermon Gershom Mendes Seixas

There is also the historic sermon from 1789 at the start of the US by Rev Gershom Mendes Seixas 40-page sermon for the first national Thanksgiving (1789) or an easier to use version here.

To jump forward to contemporary prayers. Here are two contemporary prayers. 

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy  of Nashuva in Los Angeles via RitualWell

A Prayer for Thanksgiving by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi via Opensiddur.org

Here are two sermons 50 years apart.

America, Bless God — A Thanksgiving Day Sermon by Rabbi Norman Lamm

THANKSGIVING SHABBAT 2011 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein Valley Beth Shalom with a Thanksgiving prayer or as she calls it, a kavannah, by Ina J. Hughes

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Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of himself giving his baby daughter a century-old family heirloom, a kiddush cup, which he said belonged to her great-great-grandfather, also named Max. Nearby is a marble kitchen counter topped with two lit Shabbat candles and challah under a white cover.

“For shabbat tonight, we gave Max a kiddush cup that has been in our family for almost 100 years. Her great-great-grandfather Max got it after our family immigrated here and it has been passed down through our family ever since,” Zuckerberg wrote in the post. He felt strongly that he was following the tradition in his family. In this case, we have the observance of Jewish ritual with concern for the ideology, halakhah, or meaning. There is no concern whether one is technically Jewish, with God, or any concern about denominations. The observance itself is meaningful as traditional.

Zuckerberg’s approach has been documented is recently published study called Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers by Ari Y. Kelman, Tobin Belzer, Ilana Horwitz, Ziva Hassenfeld, Matt Williams.  Jewish Social Studies, (Volume 23, Number 1, Fall 2017, pp. 134-167- requires subscription) I saw it because Matt Williams posted it on FB.

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In the new study, they show that post-boomer Jews do not look at Judaism as a religion or as an ethnicity, rather as the pull of traditional practices, yet without any sense of being either voluntary or binding.

In 2000, Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, a demographer and a historian of modern Jewish religion respectively, wrote an important work called The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, which showed that for baby boomers, American religion is now individualistic, a market place, focusing on personal journeys, spiritual moments, self-help, and the inner self. Cohen and Eisen conclude that Jewish life is entering the era of a breakdown of a grand narrative of Jewish peoplehood. Their refrain for the last seventeen years has been to proclaim that the denomination identity through belonging to a shul has broken down. Therefore, the sky is falling. How do we put people back into the post-war era of belonging to a synagogue?

Their focus on identity through religious denomination obscured the role of the non-religious aspects of Jewish culture in Jewish life such as Jewish literature, politics, summer camp, social action, Federation work, Sephardic culture, Yiddish, art, and family connections. Hence, someone who did not believe in theism or have a synagogue membership, but spent their time professionally and socially in Jewish life would still be listed as a “none.”

In this new study on Jewish traditionalism, the authors of the article limit their scope to ritual without connecting it to all those other forms of Jewish life. Nevertheless, they show that even those who keep religious ritual, go to synagogue, or pray may still be among the “nones.” Those post-boomers whom they studied referred to themselves as not religious, even when performing mitzvot as a ritual.

These post-boomers reject religion and  “described themselves explicitly as not  religious  typically associated  religion with wisdom or  expectations that came  from  a divine source  manifested in legal formulations.” For them, “Religion,  they held,  existed  “out  there,”  in the  realm  of the  divine, the  faithful,  the  biblical,  the  legal,  institutional, and  prescribed.” Those post-boomers whom they studied tended to offer a stricter definition of religious than  those who identified as religious.

The important point of the study is they they are not weak forms of the 1950’s which are petering out but a full affirmation of the ritual reconfigured to work and be meaningful for the 21st century.

Both  the  1990  National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) and  the  2013 Pew report on American  Jews used  religion as a key indicator for determining whether a possible interviewee might  qualify for  inclusion in  the  study.   The  Pew Research  Center foregrounded distinctions between  “Jews by religion”  and  “Jews not  by religion,”

Despite  the  persistence of religion as a term  that  might  describe them,  on  the  whole American  Jews do  not  actively or regularly  participate  in  activities  or  institutions that  look  terribly  religious.  Just over one-quarter (26  percent) of American  Jews say that  religion is very important in their lives, whereas 56 percent of the general public makes that  claim.  American  Jews also attend religious  services with far less frequency than  do other Americans;  only 23 percent of Jews attend religious  services once  a month or more,  whereas  62 percent of Americans  in general claim to do so.

As incoming college  students, Jews were among  the  least  likely to score  strongly on  measures   of  both  religious  commitment and  religious  engagement,   scoring  in  the  single  digits,  alongside Buddhists,   Unitarian Universalists,  and  those  incoming students who  have  no  religious preference… Sociologist Nancy Ammerman found that Jews were also outliers in the use of theistic  and  spiritual  discourse”, in which only 30% used theistic language. The next lowest group was at 60%

The majority of those they interviewed described themselves as not religious. They avoided God language and public worship, but still performed ritual. Notice how much of their findings could also apply to those who do actually belong to synagogues, even to Orthodox synagogues.

Here are some of the vignettes they present:

Sam, who was involved  in  Jewish youth  groups through high  school,  explained, “I didn’t  really believe in what most people would call God,”  and  “I still very much  enjoy songs and prayers, the experience, and I still connect  to the  community, and  I still feel connected to friends  and  family, especially [those] who are  Jewish. That’s  a part  that  wouldn’t  be there without the religious  aspect, but to me, it doesn’t  feel religious  anymore.”

Jacoba  explained, “The religion itself means  very little to me. I wouldn’t  say that I’m a religious person at all; I would say that  I practice certain  observances,  but the  reason  I do them  is not  out  of belief  in God or belief  in halakhah [Jewish law], no. . . . It’s more  out  of being  part  of a community that’s very warm, and  being  part  of a family that  has some  positive attributes in itself, like having a day to rest and  hang  out with your family. I think it’s great.  And the  holidays can be lovely because  you spend  them  with family, so it’s really more  about  a family community for me, in terms of Judaism now.”

For Diana,  “Judaism  offers a lot of tools for us to discuss important things,  and  you were born into a family where this is the language that they have and these are the tools that you were born  into that you have that we can use to help talk about the universe, ethics, culture, identity, and let’s find out what this culture says about  those  things  and  how we can look at them,  and  then you can decide  what your place is in that and if you want to continue.

So how do these post-boomers explain what they do? They don’t. But they don’t like the expectations of established denominations.

Regardless  of whether our  interviewees  described themselves  as religious  or not  religious,  they all generally  rejected the  notion of a meaningful framework  emerging from their  understandings of faith, law, the  Bible, and  direct  divine intervention.

[T]hey referred to religion as something abstract,  judgmental, and irrational. They shared  a common sense that religion had limited authority over  their  lives, regardless of how  personally  meaningful they found it. To be not religious was to reject  the authority of rabbis and Bible, liturgy, Hebrew,  obligatory  laws, empty rituals, and unrealistic expectations of prayer and the like. Yet rejecting religion did not require them  to abandon Jewish rituals,  holidays,  or other practices that they called tradition.

Traditional Judaism

But they do like ritual. The performance of ritual is up. Once upon a time, when Marshall Sklare did his Lakeview studies of the 1940’s, he found that only 6% thought ritual was important to be a Jew. Now, ritual is seen as an important part of religion and for many the most meaningful part. This was already noted in Tom Beaudoin,Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (1998), that compared to the Boomers, post-boomers like ritual. The trends documented in the article help account for the success of methods of Chabad offering discrete ritual without asking for belief or commitment such as giving shumarah matzah to a non-kosher seder, or encouraging lighting candles without asking further question.

The point of the article is that their informants called what they do- “tradition” to describe  the  elements of Jewishness that  they incorporated into their lives. They themselves use that word “tradition.”

Michelle explained how she and her  fiancée  were “figuring  out”  how to incorporate Jewish ritual  in their  lives… [Lighting Shabbat  candles] would have meaning for me, I guess, not necessarily because it’s this religious thing. . . . We do want it. We are both into tradition and  sentiment and  family, and  that comes in hand with all this religious  stuff. You know what I’m saying? We’ll take it because  that’s the tradition, and we care more  about  it as a tradition, I guess.

Yair  offered  a similar  description of his observance of Yom  Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which for him included fasting but not attending synagogue.  “I don’t fast on Yom Kippur because of religious reasons  . . . I view it as a tradition.” With perfect  ambiguity.

Generational Connection

The  generational-connection trope  allowed  interviewees  to connect their  actions  and  beliefs to a past and to an envisioned future, as in the case of Zuckerberg above.

Sarah,   “Religion  is not  a way I connect to Judaism,  but  tradition is. So it’s the  sense of pride  for me to do things  that  are part  of tradition that has been  happening for generations. I feel like they’re  part  of carrying that  on to the  next  generation.”

I just  don’t  give any  thoughts to  things  like  biblical  stories,  [or] the [dietary] laws of kashrut. . . . I don’t  want to know what [Hebrew prayers] mean.  I hate  when  we translate them  into  English  ’cause  I don’t  like talking about  the “Almighty God” and all of that. But I really like lighting candles.  I really like celebrating Jewish holidays. I like those traditions. I like the idea that  people all over the world, for thousands of years, have done  these  traditions, that’s what they mean  to me. They don’t  mean  to me like whatever they’re supposed to mean  about  God.

Brian shared  one of the most illustrative stories of someone whose commitment to tradition rests not on religion but on his connection to the future.

To give you an  example, my girlfriend’s  not  Jewish. The  other day for Hanukkah, I decided to light the  candles.  She asked me, “Why are you lighting  the  candles?”  I said, “Well, it’s Hanukkah.” She’s like, “I know it’s Hanukkah, but you’re not really religious.” I said, “I want to do it for myself. I just want to know that I know the tradition, the ritual.  I want to do it for myself just to reinforce it.” I’m not  doing  it because  I want to make  sure that  God is listening,  that  He knows that  I care. I’m doing  it because  I want to be able to tell my kids, “This is how you light the candles on Hanukkah.” I guess that’s kind of how I look at it.

Despite the good-natured teasing of his girlfriend, Brian lit Hanukkah candles with all of the religious overtones and content intact, provided… that  he made  sense of his performance as tradition and  did not take the formulaic blessing or its theological content to heart.

Getting Together

Besides tradition, they also identified ritual with contemporary social and  familial  networks.

For Elizabeth,  the ritual  of a Friday night  dinner proved  especially appealing. Friday night  marks  the  onset  of the  Jewish Sabbath,  and Elizabeth  approached the  ceremonial dinner as an  opportunity for socializing and education but not for religion.

For us [her and  her  husband], a lot of it is educating our  friends,  both Jewish friends and our non-Jewish friends.  We are sort of that couple  that always has like people over for like Shabbat  dinners and  holidays,  and like I said, Jewish and  non-Jewish. It’s not  meant to be like an outreach kind of thing or try to make people religious because we’re not religious. It’s just like a way to sort of make  everybody stop for a second  and  put down their  phones and  like have a proper dinner and  have like proper conversation.

Penelope and  Sally pointed to their  affinity for synagogues  as important sites for connecting to Jewishness, though not necessarily  with religion. Both  women  described themselves  as not religious,  yet both  explained that they seek out synagogues  and  their communities when  traveling  for work. Penelope enjoys the  “cultural traditions” of Jewish life, “but  not  necessary  the  organized religion aspects of it.” Still, “when I go to places where I don’t  know anyone,” she said, “I still go to the Jewish community. That’s my way of meeting people.” Likewise, Sally, who used to travel for work a great deal, made a habit of going to synagogue  on Saturday mornings no matter where she  was.

I did continue to go to synagogue  in every city. I found some  beautiful temples. I still am close to people I met for one Shabbat  in the middle of the  country.  It really kept  me grounded. I was really grateful  for it. Just the feeling  of prayer,  not religious. . . . Not being  religious  but a celebration  with food  and  with music…

Penelope and  Sally approached synagogues  as centers for socialization,  for  grounding, and  for  finding   community while  away from home.  The  traditional elements and  established space  and  time  of synagogue  practice helped them  locate  Jewish connections in unfamiliar places.

Not Nones

The article argues that these younger Jews might be considered as religious “nones,” or excluded from demographic of Jewish life since they claim to be not religious, not synagogue members, and not theists. These Jews claim an affinity for religious tradition, but avoid religion as they define it. This opens up the bigger question of the very possibility of a Jewish “none.” The idea of faith and synagogue membership as defining belonging is very Protestant, but does not work for Jews (as well as Muslims, and Hindus). The article cites those who seek to differentiate Judaism from Protestant categories, but without the broader historical sense of historians or global sociologists who would show how much of this would apply in other ritual based faiths.

The study offers as a conclusion.

First, the  preference for the  language of tradition suggests that the  sociological  distinction between  Jews by religion and  Jews of no religion emphasized in studies  like the  1990 NJPS and  the  2013 Pew report creates  a sharp  distinction between  groups  that  are,  in reality,  more  fluid.

This argument against  the  use of religion as a meaningful way to understand distinctions among  American  Jews should  not  be taken as a case for the rise of secularism.  What appealed to so many of our interviewees  was not  an explicitly or independently secular  realm  of Jewish life but  a way of making  Jewish life enjoyable  and  meaningful. Casting such occasions  as traditional instead  of religious  allowed our interviewees to activate those associations  while disregarding any theological overtones or  moral  finger-wagging.

Similarly, their  almost total avoidance  of the term  ethnicity suggested  that  it had  even less significance  in their  conceptualization of Jewishness, insofar as they did not offer it as a meaningful or useful term  to describe  their  Jewishness.

Eisen & Cohen understands this quality of tradition to be problematic because it is a breakdown from the 1950’s-1960’s..  Eisen framing  it in between  “the way of being Jewish as determined by God and by age- old  authorities” and  that  epitomized by more  “fragmentary, variable,  and  individualized” engagements.”

Yet this study shows that despite Eisen’s imagined future, the tenacity  of tradition that  holds  a kind  of authority, albeit one  rather distant  from  the  external and  eternal kind  that  he seems to  both  imagine  and  prefer.

For post-boomers, tradition may offer  a way of conceptualizing “the  only authentic response to the past,” but it should  not be mistaken  for a weak version of a strong central  Jewish religious  authority. Instead, it should  be understood as a mechanism for retaining connections to Jews and  Jewishness over time, within which change is a reasonable expectation and adherence is flexible.

Our  interviewees  revealed  no  such  deal  and  expressed no  such tension. They  seemed  largely uninterested in “elites of the  center” and were quite willing to engage  with the authority of tradition, even when  it did  not  make  immediate sense  to  them…  The  inconsistencies that  so bothered Eisen,… did  not  seem  to plague  our interviewees, who were well aware of the contradictions and tensions inherent in almost any commitment—ideological, interpersonal, cultural,  or otherwise.  Tradition, in their  view, offers a way to accept  an authority that one already understands has no power to enforce itself.

Paradoxically, as Jews beyond ethnicity, ritual allow them to open up Judiasm beyond the tight bonds of organized religion. For example, Zuckerberg’s Shabbat candles, challah, and kiddish with his daughter and wife.

Our  interviewees, many of whom have non-Jewish parents, peers,  and  partners, offer no  such  connection between  the  traditions that  they embrace and their sense of a normative, ethnonational identity. Instead, tradition affords  a way of opening up the  exclusivity of ethnicity  and  easing the  limitations of religious  obligation. Rather  than  reinforcing a boundary, tradition offers a kind of cultural resource that  could  be shared  with everyone  in their  social circles, Jewish or not. Tradition offers  all  of  the  positive  valences—occasions  for  gathering, and structures for  socializing  that  are  often  associated  with religion— without  any of its prescriptive obligations or its limitations on who can participate. It is neither as commanding as their  notion of religion nor  as exclusive as associations  with ethnicity.

One final point, the authors note that this is not the traditionalism of Israeli mesorati who have a  ‘thick’ sense of ethno-national (Jewish)  identification.” Here they can be non-traditional and without the ethno-national identity.

Rabbi Pamela Barmash on Rabbi Ethan Tucker

I originally asked for a wide variety of responses to Rabbi Tucker’s book and my interview with Rabbi Ethan Tucker.  We already received a nice series of responses so far. The first response was  by Dr. Malka Simkovich, the second response was by Yoav Sorek, the third response was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, and the fourth response was by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper. The fifth response was by Rabbi Professor Yehudah Mirsky. I sought diverse responses including ones from the OU and from a Sephardi perspective, they never arrived. However,  below is a sixth response from a Conservative movement perspective.

Last week, I received one from the Conservative movement written by Rabbi Prof. Pamela Barmash who is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Washington University in St. Louis. She received a B.A. from Yale University, rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is the author of Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge University Press). She is finishing a book on the Laws of Hammurabi. She has served as the rabbi of Temple Shaare Tefilah, Norwood, MA.  She has served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly since 2003 and has served on the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative movement since 2008. She has written many teshuvot for the movement.

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In specific, she wrote a recent responsa for the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards entitled “Women and Mitzvot” asking the question:  “Are Jewish women responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they have traditionally been exempted?” To which she answers on behalf of the assembly: “We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of  mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”

So the question in all of this for some of my readers is where is the push for egalitarianism among liberal Orthodox, Israeli liberal Religious Zionism and halakhic egalitarianism is different than the Conservative movement? This post will allow the reader to decide.

Particularly important is Rabbi Barmash’s special note about the role of women in society, in that, it touches on some of the prior responses that were posted here. It was an aside, a special note in the responsa, but the focus of our discussions here.

A Special Note

It is the case that learning to integrate the performance of mitzvot into our daily routines  takes time and reflective effort for all of us, both women and men. For those in our communities  who are in their beginning steps in the journey of mitzvot, and even for those of us who have  integrated many mitzvot into the path of our lives, it must be emphasized that we are all trying to  increase the holiness that mitzvot bring to our lives and that each mitzvah observed causes  holiness to suffuse our lives more and more. Each mitzvah allows us to walk another step in the  journey toward and with God. In the process of learning the observance of mitzvot, no one is  expected to learn to fulfill every mitzvah all at once.

For many women who grew up in a different atmosphere regarding women’s roles, the  call to observe mitzvot heretofore closed to them will be inspiring and deeply spiritual. They will  feel ready to fulfill many mitzvot, and they will eagerly learn new habits. But for some women  who were raised in a non-egalitarian or not-completely egalitarian atmosphere, it is  understandable that they may be hesitant to take on new mitzvot. Learning new mitzvot may be  challenging, and some women may find certain mitzvot daunting for a significant span of time.  However, it is the calling of our communities, synagogues, schools, and camps to teach men and  women to consider themselves equally obligated to fulfill mitzvot and to educate them equally in mitzvot.

Rabbi Pamela Barmash on Rabbi Tucker

I largely agree with Rabbi Ethan Tucker’s assessment of the unfolding of halakhah. I have written three teshuvot that I would like to bring into conversation with his interview.

In his discussion of the changing social status of women, Rabbi Tucker points to an analogous development in the assessment of the deaf. I wrote two teshuvot dealing with the deaf who use sign language, here and here.

I argue that the rabbinic categorization of the heresh (deaf-mute) together with the shoṭeh (mentally incapacitated) marginalizes the deaf.(Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 2b) By contrast, those with other physical disabilities are restricted only when their particular physical limitation prevents them from participating in a particular act: their impairment hinders them from specific practices. For the deaf-mute, their physical disability disenfranchises them completely. They are thoroughly excluded because their disability is associated with a mental incapacity, not solely a physical limitation. The rabbis categorized the deaf-mute in such a way because the rabbis were unable to determine their mental functioning. A person must have sound cognitive ability (דעת) in order to be a fully functioning individual in the realm of halakhah.

The ruling about the heresh arises from the rabbi’s inability to determine the mental function of a deaf-mute person as illustrated in Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 113a-b. Two questions are analyzed: 1) Terumah must be intentionally separated from other produce. The question arises as to whether terumah separated by a deaf-mute remained unconsecrated produce. 2) If a man had intimate relations with the wife of a deaf-mute, would he be required to offer the sacrifice of asham talui because the marriage of a deaf-mute was valid only according to special rabbinic enactment. A number of rabbis contended that if a deaf-mute separated terumah from other produce, even though he was prohibited ab initio from doing so, his separation of terumah could be considered valid ex post facto because it could be that he did so with the proper intention. Therefore, the terumah cannot revert back to unconsecrated produce. In regard to the second issue, the marriage of the deaf-mute, the rabbis were unsure about its source of authorization. If the deaf-mute were allowed to marry only by special rabbinic enactment, then another man who was intimate with the deaf-mute’s wife did not transgress a biblical prohibition and therefore did not have to offer the sacrifice of asham talui. However, some rabbis argued that the offender does need to offer that sacrifice because the source for the deaf-mute contracting a marriage might be the same as for all Jews because the deaf-mute has the same mental capacity as other Jews do, and no special rabbinic enactment was necessary.

Rav Ashi asked: What is Rav Eleazar’s reason [for not permitting the terumah that a deaf-mute has separated to revert to unconsecrated status and for requiring an asham talui for intercourse with a deaf-mute’s wife]? Is it obvious to him that the deaf-mute is weak in cognitive ability? Perhaps, he is doubtful as to whether [the deaf-mute’s] mind is sound [and therefore the deaf-mute can understand the proceedings and so his separation of terumah is valid and his marriage is not only valid according to rabbinic enactment] or not sound [and therefore the deaf-mute cannot understand the proceedings and so his separation of terumah is invalid and his marriage is at most valid through rabbinic enactment], though [in either case] his cognitive ability is always in the same condition [the deaf-mute’s mind is always in the same condition, unlike the mentally incapacitated who might be lucid at times].

Or perhaps, he has no doubt that the [deaf-mute’s] mind is weak and never lucid. [Rav Eleazar’s doubt] here is due to this reason: Because [the deaf-mute] may sometimes be in a normal state and sometimes be in a state of mental incapacity.

In what respect would this constitute any practical difference? [It makes a difference in respect to] releasing his wife by a letter of divorce. If you grant that his mind is always in the same condition,  his divorce [would have the same validity] as his betrothal.  If, however, you contend that sometimes he is in a normal state  and sometimes he is in a state of mental incapacity, he would be capable of valid betrothal, but he would not be capable of giving divorce [because he might be of weak mind at that time, in which case his divorce would be invalid]. What [then is the decision]? This remains undecided.

The confusion of the rabbis about the mental capacity of the deaf-mute extended to divorce. In extending a divorce, the deaf-mute must be in the same mental state as when the marriage was contracted.( Mishnah Gittin 2:6 ) If the deaf-mute were only intermittently impaired, the divorce could not be executed because it would be unclear whether at the moment of divorce the deaf-mute was lucid. The quandary the rabbis faced was that they could not determine the mental state of the deaf mute and, therefore, could not decide the questions before them.

Starting in the nineteenth century, significant advances were made in the education of the deaf-mute, and their soundness of their cognitive ability became evident. Nonetheless, the assumption that deafness was evidence of flawed intelligence continued to prevail in the general community. Sign language was maligned as a broken version of a spoken language. Only in 1960 did a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet University (then College), William C. Stokoe, Jr., publish the first analysis of a sign language as an ordered system governed by syntax.  In 1979, two linguists, Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi, demonstrated that sign languages are as complex, abstract, and systematic as spoken languages: they are controlled by the same part of the brain as spoken languages and are mastered in developmental stages like spoken languages.

A number of Jewish communities began to establish schools for the education of deaf children. Among halakhic authorities there has been a slow drift toward recognizing the cognitive ability of the deaf.

My teshuvot rule that 1) the categorization of the deaf-mute as mentally incapacitated is to be revoked and that they are to be considered completely lucid, and 2) sign language may be used in matters of personal status (such as weddings and divorces) and may be used in liturgy This is mandated by a new understanding of the cognitive ability of the deaf. Their social status has changed due to two factors: a transformation in the understanding of hearing people, who now comprehend that the deaf who use sign language have sound cognitive ability, contrary to the assumptions made in the past about them, and the increased educational and societal opportunities for the deaf.

An analogous developed has occurred with regard to women, the topic of another teshuvah of mine.  Cultural attitudes have shifted dramatically in society in general, and doors into business and the professions formerly closed to women are now open. Women participate in public life in ways unimaginable a century or two ago, or even a few decades ago. This is an intellectual and psychological transformation in how women perceive themselves and are perceived by others. Women are now seen as equal to men, in social status, in political and legal rights, and in intellectual ability by both men and women. A new world-view has resulted in new roles for women.

It must be emphasized that the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud did not doubt the intellectual abilities of women. Women were charged with responsibility for certain domestic mitzvot, mitzvot whose breach incurred serious consequences for the members of the household, including the (male) head of the household. Women were given responsibility for separating hallah from dough at home. (The mitzvah for bread baked outside the home was fulfilled by men, who served as professional bakers, and the Mishnah does mention dough prepared by herdsmen, such as in Mishnah Hallah 1.8) Women were given the responsibility for the preparation of matzah, and despite the seriousness of the preparations for Passover, they were not supervised by men. The (male) head of the household had the responsibility, according to the Mishnah, to make sure that food kept warm on the Sabbath was done without violating the Sabbath. The Talmud shows that women took care of this task, with many references to women knowing the many details on keeping food warm on the Sabbath.

Women were given responsibility for ritual tasks that took place in the home without any concern for any lack of knowledge, reliability, or intellect on the part of women, according to the Mishnah and Talmuds. At the same time, women did not serve in public ritual roles, nor were they required to perform the mitzvot to be performed by those of highest social standing.

The exclusion of women from public ritual roles was due to two principles. The first is that an individual who is not obligated for a specific mitzvah cannot satisfy the obligation of another individual who is obligated for a specific mitzvah.(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8) The second is that social standing matters and that those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. In the case of the public reading of Scripture:

A minor may translate for an adult (who is chanting from Scripture in public) but it is beneath his dignity for an adult to translate for a minor.

(Tosefta Megillah 3:21)

The reader’s social status mattered: a woman or a minor was eligible technically but nonetheless could not represent the congregation, and to do so would infringe on the dignity of the congregation. A woman could not fulfill the obligation of a man because she had a lower social status.

Often, the discussion of women’s status vis-a-vis the mitzvot revolves on the traditional exemption of women from what were deemed time-triggered positive mitzvot. The problem with this exemption is that women were required to perform many time-triggered positive mitzvot. Moreover, many of the time-triggered positive mitzvot did not have to be performed in a narrow window of time. They can be performed at home, and a number of them require only a slight amount of time to fulfill. Women were exempted, for example, from hearing the shofar, a mitzvah that could be completed at any point during the day and one that does not take much time to fulfill.

Women were put into the same category as minors and slaves with an essential difference: minors could grow up and slaves could be emancipated, but women deemed to remain in the same social status.(Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 88a and Berakhot 47b)

Women were exempted because the acts of those who are subordinate to an earthly master honor God in a lesser way. It must be emphasized that the subordination of women was about their social status, about their place in the hierarchy of family and society.

When social customs change significantly, the changed social reality requires further unfolding of halakhah. I argue that women are now to be held as equally responsible for the mitzvot as men have been and that the social status of women entitles them to participate in public ritual and may fulfill mitzvot on behalf of others.

Other significant social changes need to be considered: if both men and women are now taking responsibility for infants and young children as well as for frail relatives and friends, it may be that they should be released from the mitzvot that interfere with care-giving for the duration in which they bear those duties. An essential principle of rabbinic tradition has been that an individual who is busy with one mitzvah is exempt from another.(Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 25a). Caring for the young and the elderly and frail are religiously significant tasks, and if a person is busy caring for those in need of care, s/he ought to be released from specific mitzvot that might interfere. It must be noted this exemption should be limited to that particular span of time when an individual care-giver is occupied with care-giving and that otherwise that care-giver would retain the responsibilities and privileges that he/she would otherwise have. This exemption would apply only to individuals during the time they are fulfilling a mitzvah and would not be applied across the board to them as a class. Care-givers would be included in the minyan because they still are obligated for prayer, even if at times they may be exempted. This exemption would be a powerful statement of the importance of care-giving.

Rabbi Tucker’s interview concludes with a discussion of a number of Conservative/Masorti movement teshuvot from the 1980’s, so I would also note a number of more recent teshuvot. The teshuvot of Rabbi Myron Geller and Rabbi Susan Grossman on women and edut (testimony) were approved in 2001, and Rabbi David Fine’s teshuvah on women and the minyan was approved in 2002.

Barmash’s own Summary of her Responsa (from the end of the Responsa)

Summary

The general exclusion of women from many mitzvot is based on the characterization of those mitzvot as positive and time-bound. A number of reasons have been devised for the link between this category and the exclusion of women from those mitzvot. However, it turns out that this category was devised for exegetical (formal interpretive) purposes, and only later was the category extended to other mitzvot from which women had already been excluded. It was never a generative principle.

Instead, women were excluded because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way. The acts of those who were subordinate honor God in a lesser way and,therefore, women were excluded from them. Furthermore, social standing matters in relations between human beings, and those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. Women were endowed with ritual responsibilities for others inside the home because the rabbis thought that women had the intellect and reliability to do so. It was social status alone that determined whether women were exempted from certain mitzvot. Women were also not involved in public ritual ceremonies because of their position in social hierarchy.

The involvement of women in Jewish religious and liturgical life has changed significantly in the past century and even more in the past few decades. Jewish women are aspiring to the privileges and responsibilities enjoyed by Jewish men through the millennia. The halakhah has recognized that when social customs change significantly, the new social reality requires a reappraisal of halakhic practices. The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot.

For other reactions and responses to Rabbi Barmash’s opinion- see these links, especially for the discussion here one should see the abstentions and dissents.

Pamela Barmash, “Women and Mitzvot” YD 246:6.2014a